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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

But, the pressure can’t all be on Google to bridge the divide—city leaders have an integral role to play as well.

User-Friendly Solutions

District 8 councilman Ron Nirenberg talks about telecomunications policy during a recent interview at a coffee shop with a mix of wonky jargon and infectious enthusiasm. When Nirenberg discusses the prospect of increased access to broadband, he frames the issue as not merely a mechanism to lure businesses to SA or a chance to stream our Netflix faster, but as a way to improve quality of life and deliver equity. The FCC apparently noticed Nirenberg’s passion, appointing him to the FCC Intergovernmental Advisory Committee earlier this month. The post has the former radio station manager at KRTU advising the FCC on state and local telecom issues of interest like broadband access and barriers to competitive entry.

“I think Google Fiber is an incredible opportunity for San Antonio, but we know that there are communities in our city that are not part of the ‘digital revolution,’” says Nirenberg. “And communities that are not connected have higher rates of poverty and lower rates of educational attainment … If we agree that broadband is a utility, not a luxury, then we need to treat it as such.”

However, that’s not the case in the technical sense. To the ire of digital and social justice activists, the FCC has failed to update its classification of broadband to a public utility, instead labeling it as an “information service”—requiring less regulation by the Commission. The battle between big telecom and the FCC over the classification intensified during the recent debates over Net Neutrality.

Nirenberg recognizes the likelihood the service will first go toward already well-connected areas by virtue of the registration process design, describing it as an “unfortunate element of what we’ll see in any given city” and a “challenge” for SA to tackle.

To that end, Nirenberg is calling on COSA staff to develop a comprehensive, unified digital communication strategy to enable “equitable deployment” of IT infrastructure and services, including broadband. His plan proposes modifications to City policy that would facilitate investment by private service providers to supply high-speed broadband fairly, especially to “historically underserved areas”—making bridging the digital divide not just a priority, but a requirement. Shirley Gonzales (District 5), Rebecca Viagran (District 3), Ivy Taylor (District 2) and Rey Saldaña (District 4) all support pursuing this strategic plan.

“Once we have that unified strategy, we can better ask the question, ‘Are we truly making a difference in digital equity?’” Nirenberg says.

The City’s chief technology officer, too, recognizes the divide, and says San Antonio is positioned to take a “great leap forward” in thinking about ways to lessen barriers. “We are looking internally at how we can work with other entities and nonprofits to ensure fiber would get to homes that are in underserved areas,” says Miller. “We can get creative with our ideas, like finding grants or other funding to bridge the gap.”


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