A computer work station at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
A computer work station at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A recent study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) finds San Antonio among those U.S. cities with the highest percentages of households lacking internet access at home.

The study, titled “Worst Connected Cities 2016,” ranks cities with a population of 50,000 or greater by the percentage of households that do not have subscriptions to fixed broadband internet. San Antonio ranks 42nd out of 186 cities with 37.5 percent of households lacking access.

Brownsville ranks first in the country, with 67 percent of households without access. Other Texas cities noted for poor internet connectivity include Laredo (7th), Dallas (20th), and Houston (41st).

The median percentage of households without access was 30.8 percent.

“San Antonio’s ranking … helps us see how far we have to go to achieve our digital inclusion goals,” said Jordana Barton, senior advisor in community development for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“When you have this lack of access to an essential infrastructure – broadband – it determines residents’ access to everything,” she said.

The NDIA, a national affiliation of public and private organizations that provides research and resources to policymakers working on the digital divide or digital equity, used 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey.

The study notes that its findings do not reflect the availability of internet services, but rather the percentage of households connected to them. The study only examines fixed connections to homes, and does not include handheld wireless devices which families that cannot afford a broadband internet subscription may favor.

According to a recent study by New York City-based research institute Data & Society, less than half of Americans making less than $20,000 annually own smartphones, but two-thirds of those smartphone users use their phones primarily for internet access.

The “digital divide,” or the socioeconomic lines along which access to the internet and technology are thought to be drawn in the United States, has become a growing concern for San Antonio. The city’s digital gap has garnered considerable attention from civic, business, and nonprofit leaders, and was nationally highlighted in the New York Times and The Atlantic in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Education, workforce opportunities, business development, financial services, and health care are all tied to internet access in the digital age, Barton said.

Income, education, and age play a key role in determining whether or not households are connected to the internet, said Angelique De Oliveira, director of business development for Goodwill Industries of San Antonio.

“Seniors were born in a world where digital skills were not necessary for every aspect of participating in our society,” De Oliveira said, adding that seniors’ decision to invest in an internet subscription depends largely on whether they feel internet access is relevant to their lives, and if they have the skills to use a computer.

Other factors also get in the way of internet access at home, De Oliveira said. “When basic needs such as shelter and food are their primary concern, having access to the internet is not a priority,” she explained. “Affordability of services highly impact an individual’s ability to access the internet.”

Barton said her research found a strong correlation between household income and internet access, and sees the same patterns in both San Antonio and other cities across the U.S.

“The lowest income neighborhoods are the least connected,” she said. “Cities with the lowest area median income ranked lowest in internet-connected households. But as area median income increases, so does the percent of households with internet access.”

The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) is actively working to bridge San Antonio’s divide, its President and CEO David Nisivoccia said.

“Over 50 percent of SAHA families do not have internet access at home,” he said in an e-mail to the Rivard Report. “Our families are often faced with tough choices about their finances, and that means a car payment or education takes priority over internet connectivity.”

The Housing Authority was one of the early adopters of the ConnectHome program, launched by the Obama Administration in 2015, which provides assistance to housing authorities working to integrate internet access into affordable housing developments.

“From children needing to access the internet for homework and research and parents needing access to conduct job searches and complete skill training,” Nisivoccia said, “internet has become a basic utility.”

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.