Poverty reduction in San Antonio may be the city’s most enduring challenge, but closing the digital divide, a key measure of that poverty and inequality, seems increasingly within reach.
As the nonprofit San Antonio Digital Connects (SADC) celebrates a year of work in partnership with the City of San Antonio, Bexar County and a variety of community organizations, the outlook is bright and worthy of a progress report.
The challenge is huge and cannot be met without significant federal funding. According to SADC’s Digital Equity Community Plan, an estimated three-year upfront investment of $600 million and annual government investment of $90 million are required to close San Antonio’s digital divide.
Last month, Bexar County committed $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to expand broadband infrastructure in underserved communities, while San Antonio pledged $7 million in ARPA grants for digital inclusion.
To date, SA Digital Connects has measured the problem, formulated plans and aggressively sought to enroll eligible low-income households in government-subsidized internet services. Internet service providers (ISPs) face a deadline of October 6 to respond to the city’s July request for proposals to provide broadband Internet service to high-priority census counties and zip codes where service is limited to many residents or is too expensive.
Funds from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will flow to states and ISPs to subsidize the delivery of services in urban and rural areas where ISPs see little profit and have shown little interest in delivery. The Federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) allows eligible families to receive a $30 per month stipend to help offset internet service costs. Federal funds for the ISPs, in turn, will reduce broadband costs in the target areas.
For the marginalized 20% in San Antonio, high-speed service should become a low-cost utility.
I’m impressed with the ongoing efforts on the ground, but am concerned that Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders are not making a comprehensive broadband strategy a priority as we look ahead to the 2023 Texas Legislature session. The nonprofit organization Texas 2036 has formulated a three-point strategy for the state that calls for a broadband plan, adequately funded staffing within a state agency, and a push to attract for-profit ISPs serving all rural and urban communities.
The lack of broadband access across rural Texas and inner-city communities is drawing little attention as campaigning intensifies ahead of the November midterm elections. Still, Texas is on the verge of receiving up to $32 billion through infrastructure bills to expand broadband access.
Abbott and the Republican-controlled legislature are expected to give much of that funding to underserved rural communities that strongly support conservative politicians. Cities, which have often been the targets of heads of state on a range of issues, will have to work hard to win a significant chunk of those dollars.
The digital divide in San Antonio has existed for nearly three decades, since the advent of home computers and home internet services, but the widely ignored injustice came into focus as the pandemic hit and schools and businesses sent students and workers home to seek shelter .
In a world measured by Zoom meetings and virtual classrooms, 20% of the city’s homes were suddenly disconnected, according to the 2019-20 City Digital Inclusion Survey. Impacts on thousands of households have included reduced job opportunities, student learning losses, negative health outcomes and reduced community engagement.
The digital divide has become a new form of segregation in a city already grappling with the legacy of racial, ethnic and economic segregation.
“The digital divide has long been a problem, but the pandemic has raised awareness and we don’t want it to be put on hold ever again,” said Marina Aldrete Gavito, Executive Director of SADC. “I’m definitely optimistic. Our elected officials and the public want this addressed, and federal funds are beginning to flow to the states. Our goal is to solve this problem in San Antonio by 2025. Once we have that done, we will disband the SADC and go in search of another problem to solve.”
The city will conduct a second digital inclusion survey in early 2023, Gavito said, to see what progress has been made so far.
“The next poll should show that the gap has narrowed, because in that first poll we saw affordability as one of the biggest barriers people face,” Gavito said. “San Antonio has done a really good job focusing on recruiting people into the affordability program. I am confident that the figure will be 20% lower.”
One barrier to enrolling more households through the ACP toolkit, developed by the city’s Office of Innovation team and the Family Service Association, is that families without broadband service and possibly without devices at home must get online to get through navigate the application process. This is where nonprofit organizations can help.
Efforts to close the digital divide will be explored in more detail on September 29 when SADC and the UTSA College of Health, Community and Policy host “Digital Divide: More Than Internet,” a panel discussion on the downtown campus. Admission to the lunchtime event is free, but pre-registration is required.
Panelists will include SADC’s Gavito; AJ Rodriguez, executive vice president of Texas 2036; and Mary Garr, President and CEO of Family Service. Moderator is Roger Enriquez, Managing Director of Westside Community Partnerships.
Disclosure: AJ Rodriguez is the CEO of the nonprofit San Antonio Report.