With Candelaria Mendoza, Brian Dillard, and John Rodriguez of the City of San Antonio
NCC: Could you start by telling us a bit about the broadband landscape in San Antonio?
City of San Antonio: We are not unique in San Antonio. We are really similar to everybody else who is struggling with broadband issues, even in a big city. We have several internet service providers. Of course, we have those same conversations with them and get feedback from them saying that the majority of San Antonio has access. However, we know that whether the connection is there or not, we still have well over 20% of our community that doesn’t have a home broadband connection.
So we are really figuring out why, and it’s pretty much everything that other communities struggle with, whether it’s not having the skills, affordability, or a combination thereof. Getting details around the “why” is the reason the City of San Antonio partnered with the Digital inclusion Alliance of San Antonio and the University of Texas at San Antonio to do a Digital Inclusion Survey and Assessment in 2019-2020.
The survey allowed us to capture a pre-COVID picture of our digital divide. Obviously we think it’s worse than what we were able to capture because of the irony of capturing people that are in the digital divide in a survey and the impacts of COVID. With the responses we did get, we were able to capture a pretty good picture around connectivity, access, and digital literacy skills in San Antonio.
We still have a lot of broadband issues, even though we have several internet service providers within San Antonio. That means it’s more about all of us stepping up and understanding that the free market isn’t working for everyone and this isn’t just an item that we can say the “internet service providers are going to take care of,” and walk away. It requires a holistic strategy with partnership and resources to improve access, adoption, and digital literacy for our community.
There are many amazing organizations and partnerships that are working to improve digital inclusion in San Antonio. The City of San Antonio is currently partnering with several independent school districts, Alamo Colleges, City Education Partners, Methodist Healthcare Ministries, Bexar County, Texas A&M San Antonio, Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio, and more to improve connectivity to our students through the Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative. San Antonio needs to try and figure out a way to support our students, especially during this time where distance learning is everywhere and they need that connectivity at home. If successful, it could future-proof their internet access and give them what they need to succeed, not just what’s available.
What are San Antonio’s goals for 2021?
Our main goal is to connect students through the Connected Beyond the Classroom project that Council approved as part of the City’s COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency plan. The project is leveraging assets and partners to build a private LTE network to connect up to 20,000 students back to their school’s network and educational resources for up to eight school districts in 50 priority neighborhoods. We used the data that we have from the Digital Inclusion Survey and Assessment and from our partners to make sure that we’re going to the areas where the need is, and not just not letting technology dictate where we’re going. It’s going to be difficult and we’re going to experience some challenges because there are not as many assets there, but equity is very important and needs to be one of our main drivers.
Our focus in 2021 will be to build that infrastructure out and hit 50 neighborhoods if our resources allow us to in order to connect those 20,000 students. We’re also in conversations about building a collaborative and comprehensive digital equity plan for San Antonio and BexarCounty. We’re hoping that there’s going to be an alignment from San Antonio’s equity plan to the state plan because Texas doesn’t have one. It’s one of the States that doesn’t, so we’re hoping we can get that ball rolling as well.
If you were in front of federal leaders right now, what would you want to tell them?
The main item is making sure that they’re in support of a national broadband plan and that there’s a focus on rural and urban areas. Although there’s a huge issue with connectivity in rural areas, disconnected populations in urban areas also need support. Urban areas have more people and are more diverse. We need to focus on socio-economic indicators and ensure there’s equity in the support that’s going to be distributed across the states.
We also want to focus on the conversation at the FCC to allow educational agencies and libraries to use their E-rate infrastructure and resources outside of their physical walls to future proof our education system. It’s no longer about what happens within the walls of the school. It’s also about what happens in the comfort and convenience of everybody’s home. It needs to be available 24/7 and it needs to go beyond hotspots.
Are there any other challenges San Antonio is focusing on this year?
Our biggest challenge is responding to the overall impacts of COVID-19 on our community. Everything from housing assistance, workforce development, and homelessness.