Will Google Fiber Bridge San Antonio's Digital Divide? 

click to enlarge The map reveals disparities in internet access along socio-economic and geographical lines - COURTESY OF THE OPEN TECHNOLOGY INSTITUTE
  • Courtesy of the Open Technology Institute
  • The map reveals disparities in internet access along socio-economic and geographical lines

In February, Mayor Julián Castro, flanked by a handful of council members, the city manager and a former state representative, delivered an announcement that held the potential to revolutionize the digital landscape of San Antonio. The Alamo City, said Castro, is being considered by tech industry giant Google as a site for lighting-fast “Fiber” internet access.

“San Antonians deserve internet speeds that are faster than the Third World,” said Castro earlier this year.

Sending a ripple of excitement through the city, the plan carries with it not only the ability to increase productivity-encouraging internet speed, but perhaps more importantly the prospect of shortening the gap between the digital haves and have nots. As Castro himself said, the availability of Google Fiber could be instrumental in helping bridge the “significant digital divide,” that exists within San Antonio.

While still months away from officially sealing the deal, should we count on one private company to fix the digital equity problem, or should the City shoulder that responsibility? The answer isn’t so simple.

Need For Speed

The idea for Google Fiber hatched back in 2009 when Google and other leading tech companies were consulting with the federal government to come up with ways to increase speed for a national broadband plan.

“Through our work on that, we did a lot of thinking internally on why speed mattered and why it was important,” Google Fiber spokesperson Jenna Wandres tells the Current from the company’s San Francisco Bay Area headquarters. “So when we finished advising on the national broadband plan we took a step back as a company and said, ‘If this is something important to us then we should try to do something about it’—speed has always been part of Google’s DNA.”

So the company decided to experiment with gigabit fiber and in 2010 placed an open call to gauge which cities might be interested in the service.

“We weren’t sure what the response would be. We knew we were excited about it but we weren’t sure if others would be, too,” says Wandres.

Turns out, they very much were.

More than 1,100 cities applied to the request for information. “That was the moment we realized there is a need for speed out there,” said Wandres.

Of the applicants, Google introduced the service to Kansas City, Kan., and is rolling it out to Kansas City, Mo. They have plans to offer fiber to Provo, Utah, as well as Austin. And as we learned earlier this year, San Antonio and eight other metro areas across the nation—Phoenix, Portland, San Jose, Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte and Salt Lake City—are under consideration for the next possible Google Fiber site.

Imagine surfing the web at speeds 100 times faster than you do now. Internet speeds today average 9 megabits per second; with Google’s “1 Gigabit” plan the speeds would rise to an astonishing 1,000 megabits per second, thanks to fiber optic cables thinner than human hair strands transmitting information at the speed of light.

“Just like the transition from dial-up to broadband, we believe gigabit speed will produce all sorts of innovation that we can’t even fathom,” says Wandres. “It’s the future of the web.”

Aside from speed, another alluring aspect of the project is the network’s affordability. When former state representative Mark Strama, who now heads Google Fiber efforts in Austin, joined Castro’s announcement in February, he pointed to costs currently offered in Kansas City: Residents there can get gigabit internet for $70 month, bundle the service with TV for $120 or pay a $300 construction fee for seven years (or $25/month for a year) of basic broadband speed. While the network would be sized for the entire city, the question of who gets access is up to communities.

But a fiber network doesn’t just mean faster speeds; it also guarantees disruption in the community.

In order to be considered, SA and the other metros are required to go through a few hoops. That includes figuring out what permits are needed to build the network, accessing infrastructure and identifying what structures are already in place.

San Antonio cleared the first hurdle, completing those requirements on May 1. In fact, the city is ahead of the game—in March, city council approved a long-term master lease contract with Google to install 40 “Fiberhuts” (storage sheds that house tech equipment, expected to be installed at municipally-owned spots around town), making SA the first city in the running to complete a hut license agreement.

“Now we are just waiting for Google to assess all that data and come back to let us know if they are officially coming to San Antonio,” Hugh Miller, the City of San Antonio’s chief technology officer, tells the Current.

San Antonio also has an advantage over some cities by virtue of owning its electric company. CPS Energy controls about 86 percent of the poles that would allow for deployment, rather than a big broadband company, like AT&T, which pushed back hard against an attempt by Austin’s city council to force the telecom company to allow Google Fiber to use its poles.

Wandres says the next step is for Google to survey the checklist, draw up maps of the city and figure out where to place fiber cables—a time-consuming process. And even if San Antonio does make the cut, it will be years until the service is available to consumers.

“We anticipate once [Google] announce[s], it’ll be about a three-to-four-year build-out,” predicts Miller.

If and when Fiber does roll out here, Miller envisions increased benefits like interactive class instruction, telemedicine services, telecomuting and professional recruitment. Quality of digital life could improve even further with the City’s plans to negotiate public wi-fi in the deal. Today, COSA provides public internet access to some parks, the airport, libraries and a few municipal buildings—the preliminary fiber plan could greatly expand that.

A final decision won’t be made until the end of the year, but signs are promising that San Antonio is, at least, being strongly considered.

“One of the reasons why San Antonio has stood out as a potentially great partner is because the city has been thinking about fiber networks for a long time,” says Wandres. “Mayor Castro has stated publicly multiple times over past few years that he sees fiber as something essential for education and economic development.”

She adds, “There’s a great startup culture and lots of tech-savvy residents that would be excited about using a gigabit connection.”

However, as some community activists and public figures worry, it’s not necessarily those already plugged in to the tech world that should be the priority for Google or COSA—it’s those who have been left behind.

WiredLess

As part of the Media Action Grassroots Network, or MAGnet, a national coalition of more than 100 local media justice advocates, the Martinez Street Women’s Center teaches media literacy skills and promotes internet access to underserved communities on the East and Southeast Sides. When the nonprofit learned of San Antonio’s bid for Google Fiber, they saw in it a chance for the disconnected to finally reach digital equity.

“As a center, our mission and vision is to remove barriers to health care and quality education,” Andrea Figueroa of Martinez Street Women’s Center tells the Current during an interview at the center’s headquarters on South Hackberry. “We see online access to be one of those barriers to remove so that our community members can be on an equal playing field.”

As Figueroa points out, several of the households in her largely low-income, African-American and Latino community remain offline, mirroring broader demographics.

Since first examining the so-called digital divide in 2000, the Pew Internet Project discovered glaring differences between those who were online and those who weren’t. More than a decade later, they see similar results.

According to the 2013 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey’s central findings, 70 percent of adults 18 and older have a high-speed broadband connection at home.

Those who speak Spanish as a primary language, adults with less than a high school education, those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year and senior citizens are the least likely to have internet access. Among these groups, broadband adoption levels are at 37 percent for adults who have not completed high school; 43 percent for seniors 65 years old and over and 54 percent for those who live in households earning less than $30,000 per year. Comparatively, broadband adoption figures rest at 89 percent for college graduates, 80 percent of adults under age 30 and 88 percent of those making at least $75,000 per year.

While Pew finds that age, household income and educational attainment are the most persistent indicators of internet use, race does play a factor. Despite recent gains in usage among African-Americans, of the American adults with high-speed internet access at home, minorities continue to be less likely than whites to have home broadband overall. Close to three-quarters of whites have access to high-speed internet at home, whereas less than two-thirds of African-Americans (64 percent) and just more than half of Hispanics (53 percent) claim home access.

A 2010 Federal Communications Commission survey reinforces the findings, and cites cost as the primary barrier to internet adoption. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said price was a major reason to forgo residential internet, with 15 percent specifically pointing to monthly fees and 10 percent saying they simply cannot afford a computer.

And while 56 percent of American adults own a smartphone, ushering in increased connectivity among minority groups, the limitations of a handheld device (think: trying to file taxes, viewing educational content) stop research organizations like Pew from including them in their definition of a “broadband user.”

Closer to home, San Antonio’s broadband access rates mirror the nation’s overall divide. While homes in and around the downtown business area “overwhelmingly” have broadband, fewer than 20 percent of households west of I-10—in largely low-income (less than $33,000 in median household income), and minority-populated areas—can say the same, a revealing map created by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation released earlier this year showed.

Broadband rates, the map clearly indicates, increase with income—those in the urban core and San Antonio’s northern suburbs have much higher adoption rates than their counterparts south of Downtown.

For Figueroa’s group, the fiber option suggests that the digital trend could, over time, become much more equitable. “The Google Fiber announcement really changed the game, I think, for myself and for us here—it gave us a lot of hope,” she says.

But while it may promise to change the game, whether a fiber network can truly level the playing field is a different matter.

Digital (Ex)clusion?

When Google first came to Kansas City, excited residents scrambled to sign up for the service. But when the race to get connected was all said and done, it was white, educated, higher-income communities that benefited while the marginalized were largely still left off the map, says Kansas City digital activist Michael Liimatta.

President of Connecting for Good, a Missouri-based nonprofit organization that aims to bridge the digital divide with wireless networks, low-cost refurbished PCs and free digital life skills classes, Liimatta’s goal is to ensure those disconnected find a way online. When asked how much the deployment of Google Fiber has done to resolve the digital divide in his locale, Liimatta answers bluntly from his Missouri office: “Not too much.”

He points to cost barriers for low-income, traditionally underserved communities built into the registration structure as the central reason. For instance, the process to sign up for Fiber is based online, which inherently assumes a resident has access to begin with. Then, residents must pay a $10 pre-registration fee to qualify—the cost of a meal some may need more than internet service. And, as Google uses a “demand-driven model,” based on density of divided neighborhoods, or so-called “Fiberhoods,” if enough of your neighbors don’t (or can’t) apply, the chance you’ll see that ultra high-speed internet access severely diminishes.

Another significant problem Liimatta’s group ran into is, ironically, the “affordable option.” Assuming an apartment renter can afford the one-time $300 construction fee for “free” basic broadband internet, they must rely on enough of their neighbors to sign up (due to that ‘demand-driven’ model) and for landlords to opt in, creating a sizable hurdle for any renter living in multifamily low-income housing—and conversely, a much lower barrier for a homeowner. In Kansas City, says Liimatta, Section 8 and public housing property managers simply have not done this. To date, 25 percent of Kansas City area residents still don’t have broadband internet access at home, according to Connecting For Good.

“We have been left to figure out how to keep the underserved in our community from falling too much farther behind as those in the predominately white middle-class suburbs are racing around the internet with 100 times faster connections,” says Liimatta, who describes the digital divide as one of the “most important social justice issues” of our time.

In response, his group and other tech nonprofit partners have taken matters into their own hands by offering free wi-fi in well-trafficked public places, hosting public access computer labs and even building their own wi-fi network in underserved inner-city communities. The organization has already built wi-fi networks for more than 500 low-income public housing and Section 8 households.

While Google did not share subscriber numbers, they say 90 percent of “Fiberhoods” in Kansas City that were eligible for fiber qualified for it and can receive the service. Wandres tempers Liimatta’s reality, noting many of those previously disconnected are now online thanks to Google. “We have seen a lot of people in Kansas City who never had the internet before choose to get that product,” says Wandres. “We’ve heard really great things from them about how they have been able to use the web at home for the first time.”

Still, Google acknowledges not only the ongoing digital divide in Kansas City, but its national implications.

“We do care deeply about getting more people online so they can benefit from the web; that is important to us,” says Wandres. “There’s still a digital divide out there and it is an incredibly complicated problem. We are working with communities to tackle it together.”

In surveys conducted in Kansas City, Google found most who are still offline are so largely by choice. “We’ve also learned that even if access to the web is affordable, they don’t see it as relevant to their lives or don’t have the digital literacy skills to use it,” says Wandres.

The tech giant partners with local groups and grassroots organizers to provide digital literacy skills and training, and has worked with other local companies to create a “digital inclusion fund” to subsidize nonprofits that provide digital literacy. As for the “affordable option” obstacle for low-income renters, Wandres says Google is committed to ensuring price isn’t a barrier and cost isn’t set in stone (pricing has yet to be announced in Austin, for example). “We don’t want affordability to become a hurdle, so we work with landlords to determine pricing and availability.”

But, the pressure can’t all be on Google to bridge the divide—city leaders have an integral role to play as well.

User-Friendly Solutions

District 8 councilman Ron Nirenberg talks about telecomunications policy during a recent interview at a coffee shop with a mix of wonky jargon and infectious enthusiasm. When Nirenberg discusses the prospect of increased access to broadband, he frames the issue as not merely a mechanism to lure businesses to SA or a chance to stream our Netflix faster, but as a way to improve quality of life and deliver equity. The FCC apparently noticed Nirenberg’s passion, appointing him to the FCC Intergovernmental Advisory Committee earlier this month. The post has the former radio station manager at KRTU advising the FCC on state and local telecom issues of interest like broadband access and barriers to competitive entry.

“I think Google Fiber is an incredible opportunity for San Antonio, but we know that there are communities in our city that are not part of the ‘digital revolution,’” says Nirenberg. “And communities that are not connected have higher rates of poverty and lower rates of educational attainment … If we agree that broadband is a utility, not a luxury, then we need to treat it as such.”

However, that’s not the case in the technical sense. To the ire of digital and social justice activists, the FCC has failed to update its classification of broadband to a public utility, instead labeling it as an “information service”—requiring less regulation by the Commission. The battle between big telecom and the FCC over the classification intensified during the recent debates over Net Neutrality.

Nirenberg recognizes the likelihood the service will first go toward already well-connected areas by virtue of the registration process design, describing it as an “unfortunate element of what we’ll see in any given city” and a “challenge” for SA to tackle.

To that end, Nirenberg is calling on COSA staff to develop a comprehensive, unified digital communication strategy to enable “equitable deployment” of IT infrastructure and services, including broadband. His plan proposes modifications to City policy that would facilitate investment by private service providers to supply high-speed broadband fairly, especially to “historically underserved areas”—making bridging the digital divide not just a priority, but a requirement. Shirley Gonzales (District 5), Rebecca Viagran (District 3), Ivy Taylor (District 2) and Rey Saldaña (District 4) all support pursuing this strategic plan.

“Once we have that unified strategy, we can better ask the question, ‘Are we truly making a difference in digital equity?’” Nirenberg says.

The City’s chief technology officer, too, recognizes the divide, and says San Antonio is positioned to take a “great leap forward” in thinking about ways to lessen barriers. “We are looking internally at how we can work with other entities and nonprofits to ensure fiber would get to homes that are in underserved areas,” says Miller. “We can get creative with our ideas, like finding grants or other funding to bridge the gap.”

 

 

A ‘Proactive’ Approach

Before Nirenberg took to the dais in 2013, resident digital advocate, cyber security expert and former District 3 councilwoman Leticia Ozuna led the digital inclusion charge. Ozuna made it a mission to increase broadband access in her hometown by helping launch and develop the San Antonio Area Broadband Network (SAABN). Her aim is to give life to nearly half of the 600 miles of unused or “dark” fiber-optic cable laid by CPS Energy almost two decades ago. Not to be confused with the possible forthcoming Google Fiber service, the public resource is restricted from being offered directly to consumers as per a telecom-lobbied 1995 state law. While it’s only relegated to CPS and City offices now, Ozuna’s SAABN hopes to further expand the service to other City-tied public institutions across SA, like schools, colleges, libraries, public housing and hospitals.

However, the process is long and probably months, if not years, away. (For now, Nirenberg, Ozuna and others are currently waiting on a cost analysis.) In the meantime, digital-minded onlookers believe the prospect of introducing a new service like Google Fiber into the market will catalyze much-needed competition. In turn, they predict the rise in competition will lead to lower price points for the disconnected—a significant domino effect for those looking to narrow the divide.

“Google Fiber is exciting for the city because it makes the San Antonio internet market competitive, when it has not been competitive for many, many years,” says Ozuna. “We are going to see changes in services and changes in price points, and that’s why we should watch it—because it’s going to impact a lot of households directly in the pocketbook in a positive way.”

ISPs already seem to be reacting locally—council not only green-lighted the deployment of “fiberhuts” for Google, but struck the same deal for AT&T Texas as well, which plans to offer gigabit services to businesses. AT&T and Grande Communications are already offering competitive gigabit choices in Austin, Google’s next Fiber city.

Rather than coast on the assumed goodwill of corporations, Ozuna is adamant about ensuring communication among those marginalized through the fiber process. “What is Google or any competitor’s engagement strategy going to be for those on the East, West and South Side? If you leave large parts of the city off the table, it’s not going to be a healthy dynamic,” says Ozuna.

Figueroa’s group is in the process of deciphering who among their clients is offline; the next step is to go door-to-door in the community for a wider picture of the disconnected. Ultimately, the grassroots group wants to guarantee dialogue with the major players through the process.

“What we really want is for the City and Google Fiber to take initiative and have open conversations and engage with community members in a way where the people who can benefit the most from fiber—historically underserved communities—have a voice,” Figueroa says.

“In order for San Antonio to truly be a ‘city on the rise,’ we have to make sure those most marginalized rise up also,” she adds.

“This is one of the things that got us excited about San Antonio,” says Google’s Wandres. “It’s a group effort to bridge the digital divide.”

Taking into account Nirenberg’s plan, coupled with Google’s avowed commitment to digital inclusion, stakeholders are cautiously optimistic that, if selected as a fiber city, San Antonio could be on the road to digital equity.

The bottom line is that while Google Fiber and other private ISPs can help bridge the divide, they can’t solve the deeply entrenched, systemic problem alone—it’ll take the vigilance of grassroots advocates and nonprofits, thoughtful city planning and forward-thinking elected officials working collectively to ensure the disconnected develop digital literacy skills and get online.

Amid a complex problem with a complex solution, at least one thing is clear: Echoing others, Ozuna urges these groups to come together before Google lays its first fiber in SA, if it even does at all: “Right now, we still have a chance to be proactive.”

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