Bridging the Digital divide: Connecting the least connected



By: Melissa Ramos and James Miller

Over a quarter of a million San Antonians live in a desert.  

While it may not be the kind with cacti, buzzards or sweeping vistas of sand, it is deadly nonetheless for those who fail to navigate its pitfalls.    

For many, like Monica Gonzales and her four children, the entire situation is a proverbial Catch-22 - broadband access in her area is too expensive, unreliable, and comes with prohibitive data caps which make it unusable for modern needs.

However, without internet access these families struggle to accomplish everyday tasks according to the San Antonio Innovation and Technology Committee.
“When my kids have a homework [assignment] we have to go to the library so they can do it,” Gonzales said. “We spend so much of our time traveling between our home and the library that could be spent doing other things, but I know it’s important they do well in school.”
In many cases, it's cost prohibitive for big internet service providers like Comcast, CharterSpectrum, or Google to expand into these communities: They're below the financial income median, below the density population ratio and most importantly running the fiber optic cables through the rocky soil is expensive. Even with federal grants, state and local programs designed to make these expansions more affordable, thousands of families across the seventh largest city in the United States rely on public internet access.
San Antonio ranks 19th from the bottom of the list of major US cities for internet access, only furthering the already wide economic segregation faced by residents.
Internet is comparable to everyday essentials like water, food or electricity. These serve as basic and crucial needs in which our lives revolve around. We rely on water, food and electricity to get ready for work or school, to cook and to stay functioning. It encourages students to apply for colleges, complete homework assignments, read books and use it as a reference tool as this makes a student’s research basic, simple and quick.  

Staying connected is also an important for anyone applying for a job. Most employers will ask for an email address in addition to a phone number. Internet is one of the most important sources through which a person can gather data, pay bills, keep in touch with your child’s teacher or with your family. The list goes on and on. Meanwhile, a large population of San Antonio’s residents lack the access to do any of these things. There is an obvious and ongoing digital divide in San Antonio that must be united.

In 2013, the Obama Administration announced a program, ConnectED, to connect 99 percent of the students from kindergarten through 12th grade to high-speed Internet in classrooms and libraries over the next five years. 

In 2015, Obama announced a new initiative program, ConnectHome, builds on his ConnectED initiative. ConnectHome was a broader effort to close the digital divide and help low-income Americans succeed in a technology-driven society and expand high speed broadband to all Americans. 

In addition to the initiatives that were established in 2014, the Obama administration rolled out one of its own programs to assist with the digital divide in 2016. A program known as Lifeline included repurposing a $2 billion-a-year phone subsidy for broadband services in low-income homes.

Although the Lifeline plan has drawn criticism from the two of the five Republican F.C.C. commissioners and some lawmakers, there are positive results in our own city as well. In 2015, Carlos Briones, A Texas A&M-San Antonio student and communication major was hired by a Dallas based company that helped to roll out the Lifeline program in San Antonio. 

The employees would pick up their phone inventory when it was ready and head out to different parts of San Antonio to reach out to people about the Lifeline program. Anyone interested in the service would have to fill out an application to see if they qualify and if they did, they were handed a refurbished phone with minutes to use the phone and unlimited text. 

For two years, Carlos was a witness to the positive results in the Lifeline program. “Assisting someone in need has impacted me so much that I would like to start a similar program to Lifeline when I graduate. I have seen the internet and technology change people’s lives,” said Carlos. 

In September 2017, the program ended and Carlos was laid off. He said he was never given an explanation of why he was laid off. He just knew that the inventory of phones that he used to pick up were no longer available.

Fast forward to 2018 and the digital divide is still alive in San Antonio. SA2020, a local nonprofit organization that originated in 2014, is hoping to bridge this gap. The organization’s goal is to have homes with computers and internet by 2020.
They recently released its 2017 impact report that tracks the city’s progress in various cause areas to improve conditions within San Antonio communities which includes the issues of digital access and income segregation. 
Several programs have been initiated in the city since then and more are in the works. 

“Lack of broadband has inhibited the student’s ability to participate in the economy, and over and over, what I see is the homework divide that is keeping children behind.”said Jordana Barton, senior advisor for community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas - San Antonio Branch.

In several reports dating from 2013, data shows a major digital gap. There is not only a digital divide across the United States but in San Antonio and most of the bordering cities of south Texas. 

As active members of our city there is a lot that we can do to help bridge the digital divide to the Internet. We can vote, donate old or unused technology, work with your community agencies and get the word out about free programs and resources offered by community organizations. Whether we are talking about water or the Internet, digital access is essential to our everyday life.