Left in the Dark: the fight to increase SA's broadband access

A resource that could potentially benefit thousands of San Antonio residents and turn the Alamo City into a leading tech hub lies largely untapped beneath the ground. Nearly half of the 600 miles of fiber-optic cable—which makes high speed Internet access possible—laid by CPS Energy almost two decades ago remains unused, or “dark.”

But digital activists like Leticia Ozuna are working to shine a light on the expansive dark reserve. The cyber security analyst and former San Antonio City Council member has made it a personal mission to increase broadband access in her hometown. Over the past two years, Ozuna helped launch and develop the San Antonio Area Broadband Network (SAABN), a labor of love meant to deliver expanded connectivity to area institutions by leveraging infrastructure that’s already in place.

Ozuna, along with District 8’s Ron Nirenberg—who now carries the connectivity baton following Ozuna’s departure from City Council last May—engaged in dialogue about the future of broadband in SA during a panel discussion at Geekdom last week.

“It’s about using our municipal resources and this public investment so that we don’t end up doubling our efforts,” Ozuna told the Current. “We don’t build county roads alongside city roads, so why would [we] be building a fiber network where there are already is one?”

In other words, use what you’ve got.

But if CPS has the goods, why can’t SA residents benefit now? The City-owned utility is restricted from offering up their broadband directly to consumers as per a 1995 state law. (Notably and not surprisingly, the well-moneyed telecom lobby whole-heartedly backed the legislation.) CPS—which uses the network to connect its data centers, power plants, etc., and plans to use it for their “smart grid” in the near future—can and does offer the fiber optic network to City government departments by way of VoIP and emergency communication. While it’s only relegated to CPS and COSA 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. Think, for instance, of turning school campuses into wi-fi hotspots or making large, data-based biomedical research more efficient at major health institutions.

Switching on the unused network carries with it the possibility to help bridge the digital divide among San Antonians. According to a study by Connected Texas, broadband is available to 99.9 percent of Bexar County households, but that doesn’t mean everyone is connected. And it’s those still-unserved that trouble Ozuna and Nirenberg. The former councilwoman points to the city’s Southeast side (which she represented) as an area where digital equity is needed. In Ozuna’s home turf, households earn anywhere from $17,000-$34,000 in median income and she estimates some 70 percent of residents go without home broadband access. Research shows those households are likely forgoing the service due to expense—the main reason people don’t have broadband is cost of the service, a FCC Broadband Adoption study reports, with 36 percent of respondents citing high prices as the key barrier. In Texas, those findings track, as only about 20 percent of low-income Texans have adopted broadband.

Increasingly characterized as a basic utility and not the luxury service it initially hit the market as, internet access can level the playing field for those in disadvantaged communities. Widespread availability, Nirenberg and Ozuna argue, would especially help those traditionally left out of the benefits netted from online access, mainly minorities, low-income and rural residents, those with disabilities and seniors.

That gap in service can have a detrimental effect on upward mobility—for instance, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept online job applications, according to the FCC.

“We take for granted that we live in a plugged-in community,” Nirenberg tells the Current. “But the evidence is clear that vast areas of our city are still not part of the digital environment. San Antonio has made significant strides to bridge the digital divide, but there’s still a good opportunity to do even more here.”

While some reports suggest access to mobile wireless is on the rise among those lacking in home broadband, there remains a glaring hole. As Ozuna asks rhetorically, “Can you apply for a job on your cellphone? Can you write and research a paper on your cellphone?” By shifting some of the network to other governmental-based sites, those unable to afford high-speed internet access at home could get connected through their local libraries or schools, at least theoretically.

“Things are changing very fast; more and more cities are taking a hard look at broadband infrastructure,” says Ozuna, pointing to Lafayette, Chicago and Harlem as examples. A parallel closer to home can be found in Austin, where a public broadband system is up and running, feeding high-speed access to all Austin ISD schools. “We are a large city that strives to be a world class—so, it’s just something we can’t afford not to do.”

Ozuna says SAABN is in talks with area school districts, redevelopment project managers, San Antonio Housing Authority folks and members of the County government. But the road to connectivity won’t happen overnight—results could take up to two years. In the meantime, says Ozuna, interested citizens should speak up and directly contact their representatives, “Tell your council member, tell your state legislator—your voice on that one issue will make a difference.”

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