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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

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.

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