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A Better Way to Connect Low-Income Students to Broadband

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced many low-income residents in urban areas to adapt to a mostly digital lifestyle during the pandemic, which is often a problem, as adoption of high-speed internet access by these households lags wealthier counterparts. Lack of a broadband connection translates to missed educational, telemedicine, and employment opportunities, putting these households at further disadvantage.
What is the best way to solve this technology issue? Most cities are finding ways to use available CARES funding to work with existing broadband providers in various types of public/private partnerships to subsidize broadband access for low income households.
But not San Antonio. According to the city’s plan, it will spend $27 million of federal CARES relief funds as a down-payment to build its own wireless network in an effort to connect some 20,000 low-income students to the internet. But that on-ramp will only allow these new users to access their local school’s filtered web connection, limiting their ability to surf the entire internet.
Building a wireless broadband network in a hurry is a dauntingly complex project that will take San Antonio more than a year to complete. The long lag in bringing this network to targeted households means that the vast majority of low-income students will have to wait a year before they can avail themselves of the city’s network.
If the goal is to ensure that low-income students have the digital tools needed to thrive during the next school year, the city’s plan fails to come anywhere close to achieving it. To say nothing of the fact that it is impossible to build and continually maintain and upgrade a broadband network with the available funds.
Thankfully, it is not too late for the city to reconsider. A wiser expenditure of these funds would be to partner with existing broadband service providers and provide subsidized access to the internet. Similar public/private partnerships are what a number of major cities are doing. Chicago, for example, is using $50 million in mostly philanthropic funds to provide 100,000 low-income students with free broadband connections for up to four years via a partnership with its major cable providers. Since Chicago is leveraging existing broadband networks and not having to build its own, its funding will go much further than in San Antonio, where most of the money will disappear into sunk costs.
In a city where broadband abounds, San Antonio’s choice to build its own wireless network is a very poor use of taxpayer funds. The city’s low-income schoolchildren would be much better served if they had subsidized access to truly high-speed and unfiltered internet connections offered by existing broadband providers. This is a path that the city should carefully consider before moving forward with its own network.
(A longer version of this TechByte was published in the San Antonio Express-News)