SA Fights Misconceptions Of Being Tech-Averse City

Rackspace brought San Antonio digital credibility. - Scott Beale
Scott Beale
Rackspace brought San Antonio digital credibility.

In the late 1990s, CPS Energy began installing a fiber-optic network.

At a time when early internet enthusiasts were happy with dial-up and AOL's "You've got mail!" soundbite, San Antonio showed remarkable foresight in planning for broadband. Years later, the city's reaping the benefits.

Not that many people these days readily see the Alamo City as tech-friendly, not with the bruising it took after ride-share services Uber and Lyft left town.

So the city may have lost a PR battle with that one, but in reality, SA's tech scene is a diverse creature that continues to grow.

A year ago, at City Councilman Ron Nirenberg's request, the city began developing a comprehensive digital strategy to improve private investment in digital infrastructure, expand mobile data capacity and to put to use the municipal fiber network.

Now the city is making good on reaching those goals.

Unused capacity in CPS Energy's network could extend fiber to University Health System, UTSA, the UT Health Science Center and Alamo Colleges.

The private sector is also a driving force.

San Antonio entered an agreement with Verizon Wireless that should expand access to mobile data by allowing the company to build more infrastructure in public right-of-ways and on utility poles.

Nirenberg said the city is in closed-door talks with Cisco Systems about the company's Smart City Initiative, aimed to reduce costs, increase efficiencies and enhance quality of life.

And then there's the gorilla in the room: Google Fiber.

Just last month, the tech giant received permission from the state to expand Google Fiber Austin's service area to include SA city limits. The first big step to lure Google Fiber to San Antonio was in March 2014, when the city entered into an agreement with Google allowing the company to build "Fiber Huts."

"I couldn't tell you where they are on construction, but, essentially, the 'Fiber Huts' are the terminal points for connections to neighborhoods," Nirenberg told the San Antonio Current.

"They've mapped out the city and identified 40 locations where these nodes would have to go to reach all areas," he added.

There's also healthy competition. In 2014, AT&T U-Verse announced plans for San Antonio to become one of its "Gigapower cities," bringing another high-speed internet option to consumers.

Then there's human capital, like employees of some of Bexar County's largest tech employers, such as Rackspace. Many of these employees have the entrepreneurial itch, and they scratch it at places like Geekdom — an innovative, collaborative space co-founded by Graham Weston, Rackspace's chairman and CEO.

And there are plenty of techies who meet for beers in garages around town to brainstorm ideas or develop technologies. In May, the tech community organized under a new group called TechBloc, which brings people from the industry together to lobby for a robust tech economy, along with great networking and more brains for innovation.

While Rackspace's wild success gave San Antonio tech credibility, there's much more happening behind the scenes. The Alamo City is a tech garden with some of the most fertile soil in the country.

And Nirenberg believes all of this proves San Antonio is a 21st century city that can continue to blossom as all of these moving parts come together.

"When our city can anticipate technological change instead of react to it in the way we saw with Uber and Lyft, I'll say we are ready for the future," he said. "We're not there yet, but I think we're getting close."

Children represent the future of a digital San Antonio. - 10bitworks
Children represent the future of a digital San Antonio.

Alamo City Techopolis

Nationally, misconceptions persist about tech development in SA and Texas.

Take Nolan Berry, a Racker who moved to San Antonio from Wisconsin two years ago after Weston's company recruited the internet wiz.

"I had my perceptions of what Texas was going to be like, which weren't favorable," Berry told the Current. "I didn't have big hopes for the city and didn't really like it for the first year."

Once he started making friends, his feelings changed.

"I love it," Berry said, adding that SA could do more for entrepreneurs.

"I'm not sure how realistic it is, but the city should try to find a way to provide incentives for smaller companies and make it easier to rent small offices," Berry said. "There should be tax incentives or grants to help fund start-ups."

Ben Batschelet, lead instructor at Codeup, an organization that teaches people how to be web developers, said San Antonio is in a good spot.

"I feel like, in a lot of ways, San Antonio has a great position by flying under the radar," Batschelet said. "A lot of companies look at Austin as a potential area to relocate or expand and invest, and I think a lot are starting to find that the market up there is too crazy, too saturated, with too much chaos."

San Antonio is an alternative to that saturation that keeps companies in tax-friendly Texas.

"There are no expectations in what we deliver and offer, but when people do research and check us out they are pleasantly surprised," Batschelet noted.

But SA could use another big player like Rackspace.

"I don't want to talk bad about Rackspace, but we can't put all of our eggs in one basket," he said.

Organically Grown Tech

But like any diverse intelligent community, not everyone agrees on how the city should approach the future of technology.

Take Joseph Lopez, an assistant professor of convergent media and communication arts at the University of Incarnate Word.

"So all of what we do together is not tech building, in a sense of building techopolis. We want Google and Amazon. So bring these two huge corporations and all these tech workers and build more condos and have more Ferraris and Porsches and pop Champagne," Lopez said.

Because of San Antonio's history, which is rooted long before the United States took over Texas, and its family-oriented culture, the city needs to look within itself instead of out of state.

"Then we also look at San Antonio and see one of the biggest discrepancies of social strata," Lopez said. "The Northwest Side gets richer and richer."

Yet in the South, West and East Sides — communities where access to the internet and technology isn't as robust as it is in the center city and North Side — there are neighborhoods that are still dealing with basic infrastructure challenges such as lack of sidewalks.

In Lopez's eyes, that's where the future of technology in San Antonio is found — in working-class neighborhoods where innovation is a way of life.

"If you talk to most people that are into tech development, they want to bring people in, saying it's economic development that will create jobs," Lopez said. "What about the people who live here?"

The answer is changing expectations in underserved communities. Lopez believes that volunteering opens doors that build relationships, resulting in educational opportunities for young people.

"I think the way you entice tech is you have to have youth. They have to have something at stake," Lopez said, explaining that 18- to 25-year-olds are necessary to lead San Antonio in the tech sector. "You need to get into these schools and communities and expose them to technology."

Case in point: Nonprofit hardware hacker collaborative 10BitWorks, where Lopez likes to hang out.

"We had a group from the Martinez Street Women's Shelter come over, they were middle school girls," Lopez said. "They had never seen these tools and stuff, and they asked me if they could make robots with the tools."

When he told them yes, their eyes opened wide with delight.

"We need a lot more people realizing that things are within their reach," Lopez said.

Once San Antonio embraces this approach, said Lopez, the tech sector in San Antonio will grow organically rather than mostly depending on external brainpower to lead the way to innovation.

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