The disparity between who has internet access and who doesn’t in San Antonio corresponds roughly to the City Council district lines, new data from the City’s Digital Inclusion Survey shows. 

The survey’s results were presented to City Council members and local technology experts for the first time Tuesday at the City’s Innovation and Technology Committee meeting and showed a gap between internet access on the city’s North and South sides.  

The City’s Innovation Office conducted the Digital Inclusion Survey and Assessment between December and February. The results revealed that residents in City Council districts 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 – the city’s North Side – have internet access at rates between 82 percent and 94 percent, whereas only 62 percent to 77 percent of residents in districts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 – the center city and South Side – have access.

The overall citywide average is 81 percent for in-home broadband internet access, said the City’s Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard.

“So broadband internet access has a 30 to 32 percent difference between the best and the worst [areas] when it comes to council districts and that access,” Dillard said. “When your student is distance learning, but at the same time you’re expected to do remote work – how do we make sure we’re filling in those gaps?”

Access to desktop and laptop computers was also unequal. Ninety-three percent to 96 percent of the city’s Northside residents reported having access to such devices, compared to 75 percent to 88 percent of Southside residents. The difference reflects disparities that are tied to education and income, Dillard said. 

“Your residents know – our customers know – that internet access equals opportunity,” Dillard said. “They know the value of it. They proved that out in their responses, and they show that over and over again, whether it’s workforce, whether it’s education, or just access to basic services. They know the value of internet access.”

The survey showed that the divide was narrower when it came to digital literacy. Participants were asked to assess their digital skills by agreeing or disagreeing with statements such as “I can recognize a phishing attempt” and “I can use computer productivity software like Word or Excel.”

In districts 6 through 10, the survey found that 82 percent to 91 percent of those respondents showed digital competence, but only 77 percent to 84 percent of the survey participants in Districts 1 through 5 were considered digitally literate.

More than 6,048 San Antonians responded to the survey, with an average of 500 responses per council district, Dillard said.

The survey was developed in coordination with the University of Texas at San Antonio, Bexar County, and the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio, Dillard said.

“The entire community must have access to the internet or preexisting disparities will only get worse,” stated the UTSA Policy Studies Center about the survey results. “Embracing the goal of universal internet access is necessary to improve longstanding inequalities in communities that have long endured gaps in income, educational attainment, employment, housing, and health. Otherwise, leaders face the prospect of creating another category of disparities: digital inequality.”

Councilman John Courage (D9) said while the numbers tell a story, he worries that because the survey was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the figures may be misleading. The survey was done before public schools switched to distance learning, which posed a challenge to families without internet access or electronic devices and forced school districts to issue paper schoolwork and loan devices to students.

“I wonder if there’s a way of doing a followup with the school districts,” he said.

After presenting an overview of the digital divide’s statistics, Dillard discussed the City’s digital inclusion plan. Titled “Connected Beyond the Classroom,” the project will have multiple phases. 

Under the project, the City would build a “collaborative, citywide, multi-government agency network between the City and other governmental entities to expand fiber capability and student access,” Dillard said.

The result would be a distance learning network that aims to provide in-home school system internet access for up to 20,000 students within “priority neighborhoods,” he said. High-priority neighborhoods include the Historic Westside, Prospect Hill, Las Palmas, Collins Gardens, and Los Jardines. 

Phase one would focus on six neighborhoods that feed into Lanier High School, with phase two focusing on expansion and replication across other areas. 

Ideally this system would use multiple funding models to grow and sustain the network, Dillard said. The projected timeline is from spring in 2021 to the end of 2021, he said. 

Digital inclusion will be a part of the City’s general fund this upcoming fiscal year, rather than coming from federal coronavirus relief funds, since creating a network will take time and personnel to properly implement, Dillard said. The City plans to allocate $27.3 million from the City’s upcoming budget towards the effort.  

“It’s $27 million of building core infrastructure where it doesn’t exist in these 50 neighborhoods today so students can connect to their school [internet] systems from their home,” said Craig Hopkins, director of the City’s information technology services department. “I think we have an opportunity to change the lives of 20,000 students really fast.”

Correction: The first reference of an individual in this story that was missing has been added.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.