My wife Monika and I spent a recent Saturday wandering through a park brimming with hundreds of people enjoying yoga and dance classes, group dog training, skateboard lessons for adolescents and the offerings of various arts and craft vendors.
I found an empty bench and paused to edit a draft column, taking advantage of free high-speed Wi-Fi service that everyone else seemingly was using. While awaiting the all-clear from my editor, I watched videos of the war in Ukraine, which loaded instantly.
We were not in San Antonio.
The park was the Parque México in Mexico City. The sprawling metropolis of 22 million people was recognized last November by Guinness World Records as the most wired city on the planet, with 21,500 free Wi-Fi spots, beating out Moscow, Seoul and Tokyo.
When we will have the same level of free public internet in San Antonio and Texas?
That depends on whether the state’s top elected officials and state lawmakers make universal broadband service for Texans a priority in the 2023 legislative session. There is $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds available now for rural broadband expansion statewide, and $2 billion to $4 billion is expected to flow into Texas via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. That federal legislation passed in November 2021 aims to “ensure every American has access to reliable high-speed internet.”
The pandemic-fueled surge in federal spending should give the state the necessary funds to seriously address the digital divide, one of the most defining inequities in Texas.
San Antonio and Bexar County and other local entities, meanwhile, have been laying the groundwork for what they hope will be an estimated $500 million infusion of state and federal funds to address the digital divide locally. That collaborative, SA Digital Connects, has produced a 302-page Digital Equity Community Plan that estimates it will take $600 million to close the city and county’s digital divide and an additional $90 million annually to maintain universal household access to high-speed internet, devices, and where needed, training.
Digital inclusion is increasingly seen as a right and a necessity rather than a consumer service available only to those who can afford the cost of smart devices and robust broadband internet service. Digital inclusion is increasingly linked to economic development.
About 7.4 million people, 1 in 4 Texans, do not have access to high-speed internet service at home, according to a recent study. That translates to 3 in 10 households . The lack of free public service in San Antonio, meanwhile, sends people to their neighborhood H-E-B, branch library, school campus or other locale to find a signal.
School-age children of tens of thousands of hard-working families in San Antonio cannot take advantage of online resources to learn at home, access remote education opportunities or compete with students who enjoy private broadband service at home. Parents cannot access vital health care services. Those old enough to vote are not as civically engaged.
Federal funding does exist to help low-income families pay for at-home connectivity, but a lack of outreach by the state means most eligible citizens are unaware of the programs. Tensions between the state’s top Republican leaders and big city mayors and county judges means there isn’t much visible collaboration or dialogue.
In rural Texas, a lack of population density means most residents do not have access to high-speed, land-based connections. Low-earth orbit satellites appear to offer the most promise for rural communities, but the early stage service is still too expensive for many residents and not available everywhere.
Texas 2036, the nonprofit organization focused on key challenges Texas faces as it draws closer to its 200th birthday, released a study this week on broadband inequities that should be addressed with the anticipated federal funding. The study it commissioned was conducted by the Center for Public Finance at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy as part of the nonprofit’s Investing in Texas series.
The study highlights the many benefits the state will realize by expanding broadband service throughout the state.
“One of the most defining characteristics of the 21st century has been the introduction, expansion and integration of the internet into nearly every dimension of human life,” said Jorge Barro, the report’s author. “While the capabilities of the internet continue to grow and become necessary for these opportunities, access for many Texans remains out of reach.”
The report calls for increased outreach to economically disadvantaged Texans eligible for federal assistance programs, encouraging “enhanced competition” among private broadband providers, and using the available federal funding to address the issue and establish policies that maintain access to broadband services.
SA Digital Connects has done a thorough market analysis with extensive mapping of an estimated 160,000 disconnected households, but the real work can only begin with adequate funding. State leaders must first embrace the challenge and opportunity and join hands with city and county leaders.
San Antonio, a city high on the U.S. Census list of cities with the highest poverty rates, wants to be a leader in closing the digital divide. It’s a worthy ambition.
The San Antonio Report’s board chair, A.J. Rodriguez, is the executive vice president of Texas 2036.