Texas leaders must bridge the digital divide

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My wife Monika and I spent a recent Saturday wandering through a park teeming with hundreds of people enjoying yoga and dance classes, group dog training, teen skateboarding lessons, and offerings from various vendors. arts and crafts.

I found an empty bench and paused to edit a column draft, taking advantage of the free high-speed Wi-Fi service that everyone was apparently using. While waiting for the green light from my editor, I watched videos from the war in Ukraine, which loaded instantly.

We weren’t in San Antonio.

The park was the Parque México in Mexico City. The sprawling metropolis of 22 million people was recognized last November by Guinness World Records as the most connected city on the planet, with 21,500 free Wi-Fi hotspots, beating Moscow, Seoul and Tokyo.

When will we have the same level of free public internet in San Antonio and Texas?

It depends on whether top elected officials and state legislators make universal broadband service for Texans a priority in the 2023 legislative session. American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds of $500 million are currently available for rural broadband expansion statewide, and $2-4 billion is expected to flow to Texas through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This federal legislation passed in November 2021 aims to “ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed Internet.”

The pandemic-fueled increase in federal spending should give the state the funds to seriously address the digital divide, one of the most defining inequalities in Texas.

Meanwhile, San Antonio and Bexar County and other local entities have laid the groundwork for what they hope will be an estimated $500 million infusion of state and federal funding to address the digital divide locally. . This collaboration, SA Digital Connects, has produced a 302-page digital equity community plan that estimates it will take $600 million to close the city and county’s digital divide and an additional $90 million a year to maintain universal household access to high-speed Internet, devices, and where appropriate, training.

Digital inclusion is increasingly seen as a right and a necessity rather than a consumer service available only to those who can afford the cost of smart devices and robust broadband internet service. Digital inclusion is increasingly linked to economic development.

About 7.4 million people, or 1 in 4 Texans, do not have access to high-speed Internet service at home, according to a recent study. That translates to 3 out of 10 households. The lack of free public service in San Antonio, meanwhile, sends people to their neighborhood HEB, secondary library, school campus, or other location to find a signal.

School-age children from tens of thousands of hard-working families in San Antonio cannot take advantage of online resources to learn at home, access distance education opportunities, or compete with students who benefit from private broadband service at home. Parents cannot access vital health services. Those old enough to vote are not as civically engaged.

Federal funding exists to help low-income families pay for home connectivity, but lack of state awareness means most eligible citizens are unaware of the programs. Tensions between the state’s top Republican leaders and major city mayors and county judges mean there isn’t much visible collaboration or dialogue.

In rural Texas, the lack of population density means most residents lack access to high-speed landline connections. Low-Earth-orbit satellites seem to hold the most promise for rural communities, but early-stage service is still too expensive for many residents and not available everywhere.

Texas 2036, the nonprofit focused on key challenges facing Texas as it nears its 200th anniversary, released a study this week on broadband inequities that should be addressed with funding. planned federal. The study he commissioned was conducted by the Center for Public Finance at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy as part of the nonprofit program Invest in Texas series.

The study highlights the many benefits the state will realize by expanding broadband service across the state.

“One of the most defining characteristics of the 21st century has been the introduction, expansion and integration of the Internet into almost every dimension of human life,” said Jorge Barro, the report’s author. “As Internet capabilities continue to grow and become necessary for these opportunities, access for many Texans remains out of reach.”

The report calls for increased outreach to economically disadvantaged Texans eligible for federal assistance programs, encouraging “increased competition” among private broadband providers and using available federal funding to address the problem and establish policies that maintain access to broadband services.

SA Digital Connects has done extensive market analysis with detailed mapping of around 160,000 disconnected households, but the real work can only begin with adequate funding. Heads of state must first seize the challenge and the opportunity and partner with city and county leaders.

San Antonio, a city at the top of the US Census list of cities with the highest poverty rates, wants to be a leader in closing the digital divide. It is a noble ambition.

San Antonio Report Board Chairman AJ Rodriguez is the executive vice chairman of Texas 2036.

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