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Will Google Fiber Bridge San Antonio's Digital Divide?

Photo: Courtesy of the Open Technology Institute, License: N/A

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.

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