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

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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.

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