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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 ‘Proactive’ Approach

Before Nirenberg took to the dais in 2013, resident digital advocate, cyber security expert and former District 3 councilwoman Leticia Ozuna led the digital inclusion charge. Ozuna made it a mission to increase broadband access in her hometown by helping launch and develop the San Antonio Area Broadband Network (SAABN). Her aim is to give life to nearly half of the 600 miles of unused or “dark” fiber-optic cable laid by CPS Energy almost two decades ago. Not to be confused with the possible forthcoming Google Fiber service, the public resource is restricted from being offered directly to consumers as per a telecom-lobbied 1995 state law. While it’s only relegated to CPS and City offices 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.

However, the process is long and probably months, if not years, away. (For now, Nirenberg, Ozuna and others are currently waiting on a cost analysis.) In the meantime, digital-minded onlookers believe the prospect of introducing a new service like Google Fiber into the market will catalyze much-needed competition. In turn, they predict the rise in competition will lead to lower price points for the disconnected—a significant domino effect for those looking to narrow the divide.

“Google Fiber is exciting for the city because it makes the San Antonio internet market competitive, when it has not been competitive for many, many years,” says Ozuna. “We are going to see changes in services and changes in price points, and that’s why we should watch it—because it’s going to impact a lot of households directly in the pocketbook in a positive way.”

ISPs already seem to be reacting locally—council not only green-lighted the deployment of “fiberhuts” for Google, but struck the same deal for AT&T Texas as well, which plans to offer gigabit services to businesses. AT&T and Grande Communications are already offering competitive gigabit choices in Austin, Google’s next Fiber city.

Rather than coast on the assumed goodwill of corporations, Ozuna is adamant about ensuring communication among those marginalized through the fiber process. “What is Google or any competitor’s engagement strategy going to be for those on the East, West and South Side? If you leave large parts of the city off the table, it’s not going to be a healthy dynamic,” says Ozuna.

Figueroa’s group is in the process of deciphering who among their clients is offline; the next step is to go door-to-door in the community for a wider picture of the disconnected. Ultimately, the grassroots group wants to guarantee dialogue with the major players through the process.

“What we really want is for the City and Google Fiber to take initiative and have open conversations and engage with community members in a way where the people who can benefit the most from fiber—historically underserved communities—have a voice,” Figueroa says.

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