Since assuming the role of Mayor of San Antonio in June 2014, I have noticed an increasing national awareness of the need for digital literacy, just as I have increasingly emphasized the importance of digital literacy in our community. My vision for San Antonio is of a globally competitive city where everyone has the opportunity to connect with prosperity. We cannot achieve this vision unless we close the digital divide.
The Digital Divide Hampers Growth and Equality
The digital divide, which we define as the gap between people who have access to broadband service and know how to use the Internet and those who do not, prevents many San Antonians from being able to complete essential tasks, such as filling out job applications, communicating with teachers, and even interacting with local governments. The digital divide rests on several factors, including a lack of reliable Internet access due to poor broadband connectivity, lack of computer accessibility, and high rates of digital illiteracy (the inability to use a computer for basic functional tasks).
Necessary tasks of daily living, such as paying bills, will be even more difficult for those on the wrong side of the digital divide as the pace of technological change continues to increase. Furthermore, the presence or even prevalence of “digital deserts” in certain geographic areas means that many of us not only are without the tools to easily enter the workforce but also are missing the skills to be productive workers. A limited workforce, in turn, can hamper growth in our local economy, creating a vicious cycle resulting in lack of opportunity across the community.
While all groups may eventually feel the negative impacts of the digital divide, it is also true that structural socioeconomic inequalities tend to widen the gap between the most proficient users and those who are least adept or have the lowest levels of access. This “usage gap” was first identified more than a dozen years ago. Low-income individuals, and other marginalized populations such as seniors and the disabled, are less likely to be digitally literate and to have access to computer devices and reliable Internet connections. The usage gap that characterizes the digital divide has now been linked to escalating income inequality in a negative feedback loop.
The Digital Divide in San Antonio
Texas is the nation’s second-largest state in both population and land mass and, unfortunately, is emblematic of the digital divide facing our country. In Texas, 38% of both urban and rural areas currently lack access to high-speed broadband; within this population, 20% indicated a lack of digital literacy as the major barrier to subscribing for broadband service.1
The 2013 American Community Survey found that San Antonio ranked in the bottom third of major U.S. cities based on percentage of households with no Internet access at home, at 25.3%.2 San Antonio’s population of approximately 1.4 million is spread over 467 square miles,3 which can make service delivery difficult due to low densities in many areas. Additionally, low-income residents are more likely to be hampered by a lack of basic literacy, including text literacy, numeracy, and financial literacy, as well as digital literacy. Estimates of illiteracy among San Antonio’s adult population range from 11% to 25%,4 meaning that up to one in every four San Antonians may be functionally illiterate.
In San Antonio, the digital divide has also been fueled by residential broadband service rates. Internet access disparities are directly correlated with socioeconomic brackets in both urbanized and more rural areas of our city. A map generated by Open Technology Institute at New America revealed how San Antonio reflects the nation’s broadband divide: more than 80% of households in higher-income areas north of downtown and in northern suburbs have broadband, while in areas west of Interstate 10 and within the urban core, fewer than 20% of households have access.5. San Antonio’s more affluent residents are thus four times more likely to have access than lower-income residents.
Elements of Digital Inclusion
Digital inclusion is an effort to connect all people to the opportunities offered by technological advances. In San Antonio, we see this effort as having four main components:
- Making reliable, affordable broadband widely available;
- Ensuring a supply of devices (or retrofits for existing devices);
- Providing tailored, relevant training; and
- Planning for sustainability linked to education, employment, and quality of life outcomes.
We have had an opportunity to learn about each of these elements through participation in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) ConnectHome initiative during the past year. ConnectHome has been an excellent platform to draw together partners ranging from public entities such as the City of San Antonio (COSA), the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), and our two local library systems, the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) and Bexar County’s BiblioTech, to not-for-profit organizations like Goodwill Industries and private sector players like Google Fiber.
To better leverage ConnectHome, in 2015 I created the Mayor’s Digital Inclusion Initiative (Di2). While the overall goal of Di2 is that all San Antonians be connected to opportunity, the initial programs will focus on the communities that struggle to have access to affordable broadband, devices, and training. Di2’s first steps, which include the preparation of a digital inclusion strategy document, build on work already being done and will engage both internal (COSA) and external partners. These action items include
- Updating San Antonio’s literacy assessment;
- Linking identified literacy and other service providers into a network;
- Developing a model for the provision of broadband access, devices, and training based on ConnectHome; and
- Conducting outreach for the larger community, including engaging a broad range of partners to replicate ConnectHome successes.
It’s All about Partnerships.
The creation of Di2 was also spurred by the completion of extensive negotiations with Google Fiber in 2015. After a five-year process that followed the City’s application for Google Fiber in 2010, San Antonio was selected as the location for a new fiber network that would ultimately deliver access to “gigabit” Internet connections (up to 1,000 megabits per second). Announcements of the deal focused on the potential for ultra-high-speed Internet to bring about economic and even cultural change. As part of that change, I wanted to work with local Internet service providers to leverage their investments to help San Antonio become a community where all our residents are connected to opportunity. Equally as important as partnerships with the private sector are partnerships with local organizations who are already doing great digital inclusion work.
Digital inclusion is not a new, exotic undertaking that should be driven by technological innovations. Teaching digital literacy requires the same skills and approaches in which traditional literacy promoters already excel. Don’t start over, but instead partner with those who know the most about literacy: libraries, school districts, and adult learning centers.
That’s why Google Fiber partnered with NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network, to fund year-long Digital Inclusion Fellows in all Google Fiber markets—to build and improve capacity within partner organizations. In San Antonio, one of the three Austin-based 2016 NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellows is located within the San Antonio Public Library, one within the only local non-profit organization focused on adult literacy, Each One Teach One, and the third within the SAHA.
Pilot Programs Work.
COSA and SAHA had an opportunity to partner with HUD on the ConnectHome program, which set an ambitious schedule and goals regarding affordable high-speed Internet access within public housing-assisted units. Our San Antonio steering committee hashed out local goals and approaches—which differed in some regards from the national model but were created to lay the foundation for Di2 and other ongoing efforts here in San Antonio. ConnectHome provided an invaluable platform and the spark to get our effort started, and it put us in touch with peers across the country as they had their own public policy discussions, developed different models, and shared their results with us. ConnectHome exemplifies how the “community of learning” approach can succeed in catalyzing necessary change.
I credit HUD Secretary Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, with allowing cities and public housing authorities the flexibility to tailor responses to local needs while challenging us to accomplish something significant for our residents. HUD also understood that fully funding a limited pilot program might produce some immediate results but once the federal funding tapered off the initiative would likely be unsustainable. Multiple pilot cities, flexible guidelines, connection to private sector partners, and an emphasis on developing local funding streams meant that communities had the ability to learn from each other while collaboratively crafting their own approaches.
Pursue Multiple Models.
Just as different cities have distinct needs, different populations within communities have distinct needs and require customized approaches. In San Antonio, we decided that our ConnectHome efforts should include training and outreach targeted to families, seniors, and youth. For example, family-centered programs include daycare for preschool-age children. At other sites, youth were enticed to participate by the promise of being able to build their own computer using Raspberry Pi kits and components. And seniors seem to prefer that both learning and computer use take place in community settings where help is readily available, rather than immediately shifting focus to installing computers in individual units.
Establishing partnerships with a variety of entities can help us develop these models and enable all of us to reach our goals. For example, Girls Inc. uses digital inclusion activities to realize its mission to help girls become “Strong. Smart. Bold.” by introducing computer-based activities that lead to learning coding. Our new downtown, tech-based high school, a cooperative venture between our central city school district and our technology community, will offer experiential learning by requiring that students become digital ambassadors as part of their community service commitment.
Smart Cities without Digital Inclusion Could Promote Existing Inequities.
My final thoughts echo the analysis of current conditions in San Antonio with which I opened. Like many communities, San Antonio is pursuing smart city approaches that promise more efficient, effective, and responsive governments. As noted earlier, most of us appreciate the rapid pace of innovation that has led to job applications, medical records, and government information being available online at all hours. But these changes are not good for everyone. If you do not have access to the Internet, if you do not have a device, if you can’t read, then these trends are troublesome. While we in local government often turn to digital communication to make government more transparent and accessible, we run the risk of further disenfranchising certain populations, such as very low-income families and the elderly.
Because we know that the digital divide can keep our residents from participating fully in a tech-based government or local economy, we have to be just as committed to inclusivity as we are to innovating and adopting smart city technologies. To achieve the vision of San Antonio as a globally competitive city that offers everyone the opportunity to prosper, we must continue to work together to focus on improving connectivity, making devices available, providing relevant training, and planning for sustainability—on closing the digital divide, and opening up a world of opportunities.
- Connected Texas, The Broadband Landscape in the State of Texas: Assessment at a State, Regional & Local Level and Recommendations for Broadband Expansion (Austin, TX: Connected Texas, March 2011), 5, http://www.connectedtx.org/sites/default/files/connected-nation/Texas/ctx_planning_report_final_web.pdf.↵
- Thom File and Camille Ryan, “Appendix Table D. Computer Ownership and High-Speed Internet Use for Individuals by Metropolitan Statistical Area: 2013,” in Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013, American Community Survey Reports (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, November 13, 2014), https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2014/acs/acs-28.html.↵
- U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: San Antonio, Texas,” 2014, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/POP060210/4865000.↵
- San Antonio Public Library, “Community Profile,” 2011, http://mysapl.org/Portals/6/Files/About/StrategicPlan/CommunityProfile.pdf.↵
- See Emily Badger, “The Most Revealing Broadband Adoption Maps We’ve Ever Seen,” CityLab, February 28, 2014, http://www.citylab.com/tech/2014/02/most-revealing-broadband-adoption-maps-weve-ever-seen/8517/.↵