Fiber optics. Photo by Flickr user Tony Webster.
Fiber optics. Photo by Flickr user Tony Webster.

We all agree that San Antonio must embrace technology and innovation to be more competitive in the global economy and improve our quality of life here at home.

So imagine a future when San Antonio has a leg up on other American cities, thanks to focused investment and proactive policy-making; a future when our world-class institutions — like University Health System, University of Texas at San Antonio, the UT Health Science Center, and the Alamo Colleges — are connected to a state-of-the-art fiber network; a future when every San Antonian has access to affordable, reliable broadband. This future is within our reach.

Economic Imperative

Biosciences, advanced manufacturing, financial services and cyber security – industry clusters built on a foundation of 21st century communication technology – have been identified as critical sectors for the City and County’s economic development strategy. The strength of our economy, projected to grow by another 500,000 jobs in the next 25 years, will depend largely on our ability to attract, grow, and retain businesses in these sectors while preparing a workforce with skills they demand.

In recent years, the public and private sectors have taken first steps to prepare for this future, including the installation of extra fiber capacity by CPS Energy, streamlining of permitting requirements by the City of San Antonio, and an influx of service providers that view the United States’ seventh largest city as a market of worthy of investment. In October, I represented San Antonio as it was named an inaugural member of Next Century Cities, a nationwide group of communities working together to leverage municipal broadband to improve the health, safety, and economic vitality of their communities.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ivy Taylor both made technology a centerpiece in recent speeches, marking an emerging consensus that, though we are in a strong position, we still have work to do.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff gave a State of the County speech on Friday. Photo by Joan Vinson.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff gave a “State of the County” speech on Friday, May 22, 2015. Photo by Joan Vinson.

A Comprehensive Digital Strategy

Last June, I filed a memo directing City staff to develop a comprehensive digital strategy that consists of four pillars:

  • improving private investment in digital infrastructure;
  • expanding mobile data capacity;
  • developing federal and state legislative agendas; and
  • utilizing our municipal fiber network.

Digital communications technology connects people, businesses, and entire economies. Adequate and equitable access to broadband and mobile infrastructure and service is vital to the health of ours. The good news is, the progress has been swift and significant.

Municipal Broadband

From Santa Monica to Chattanooga to Boston, cities are recognizing the value of municipally owned, high-speed fiber networks. Los Angeles, in fact, released a Request for Proposal this month for a company to build one at considerable expense. San Antonio, on the other hand, already has access to hundreds of miles of fiber optic lines that have been dark since the 1990s, when CPS Energy began installing extra capacity with the understanding that someday we would likely need it. A major milestone for activating this network was reached in October, when the City negotiated a right to the unused capacity. This agreement with CPS Energy gives the City of San Antonio irrevocable use of a portion of the fiber optic infrastructure.

While Texas law prohibits us from selling Internet access to residences, it does permit connections to public institutions like libraries, schools, hospitals, and government buildings. Once connected, they could utilize low cost, high-speed digital communications and Internet service, providing a strategic advantage in day-to-day operations while passing on savings to taxpayers. This is particularly important in advancing a key U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) priority: providing basic broadband service to public housing developments. Having access to broadband service is imperative for being connected to economic opportunity, but we know that access tracks with socioeconomics. HUD recognizes the opportunity created by broadband just as we do.

Tuesday morning, I testified before the County Commissioners Court, urging them to support the launch and operation of a municipal broadband network. They passed unanimously a resolution of support, signaling a commitment to partner with City in this effort.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) testifies to the County Commissioners Court, calling for support of municipal broadband on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. Photo courtesy of Nirenberg's office.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) testifies to the County Commissioners Court, calling for support of municipal broadband. Photo courtesy of Nirenberg’s office.

Launching a high quality municipal broadband network requires significant investment. Public institutions will have to invest in the “last mile” fiber lines to the network, while the City needs equipment and staff to power it. But the good news is the major expense – the core fiber infrastructure – is already there, bought and paid for, at significant cost savings for the City and future connected institutions. On Thursday, I will ask City Council to support the additional investment, which will be recovered through the connected institutions, as a line item in our FY2016 budget.

Private Sector Investment

The City should also continue to adopt policies that accelerate digital infrastructure deployment and make it sustainable in the private sector.

In March 2014, San Antonio took the unprecedented step of authorizing a single agreement for 40 leases of city-owned property in order to build Google “Fiber Huts.” The action was hailed as a proactive step to ushering new competition to the San Antonio’s broadband market. Providers like Time Warner and AT&T responded quickly by making their own investments in services. While San Antonio has not yet been announced officially as a Google Fiber City, we know that the sheer size of the city requires additional time to plan and deploy fiber assets for a new market entrant. This makes reducing red tape critical to the future of our efforts on technology.

Google fiber cities; established, upcoming, and potential.
Google fiber cities; established, upcoming, and potential.

Last week, the City Council approved the Master License Agreement with Verizon, which streamlines the permitting process for expanding needed mobile data capacity in City rights-of-way and on utility poles. As digital communication of all kinds moves increasingly to mobile technology, it is vital that we keep up with demand (imagine if your business experienced the same mobile service as you do while in a crowded arena). The agreement establishes a new revenue stream and a template for other mobile providers, and I believe we should use those funds to make continual investment in technology for our community.

Those revenues would help us accomplish priorities in technology that have too often – and for too long – been viewed as a luxury instead of a necessity to our future as a connected 21st century city. Telecommunications companies like Cisco have identified San Antonio as a prime target for the implementation of “smart cities” technology, including smart traffic management systems and city service digital kiosks.

Local Opportunity, National Priority

In leveraging technology for the benefit of San Antonio, we are examining how forward-thinking communities around the globe are doing things, and we are coordinating with stakeholders at the state and federal levels. As an appointee to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Intergovernmental Advisory Committee (IAC), I work with municipal and state leaders from across the country to advise the FCC on issues of importance to local governments.

This spring, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County both launched Text-to-911, an initiative I worked on in the IAC. Text-to-911 allows residents in the county to send text messages to emergency responders. This has already achieved measurable results for our law enforcement agencies.

I’m confident that San Antonio’s technology future is bright; we have strategic assets and strong policy. As the federal government continues to break down barriers to accessing digital technology, locally, it is an opportunity for our city to lead. Let’s seize it.

*Featured/top image: Fiber optics. Photo by Flickr user Tony Webster.

Related Stories:

Lighting Up Dark Fiber: San Antonio’s Broadband Plan

How Google Fiber in San Antonio May Deter Internet as a Public Utility

San Antonio’s High Speed Network Still Untapped

San Antonio Has Google Fiber Potential

Ron Nirenberg is the mayor of San Antonio.