Bexar County puts $25M toward expanding high-speed internet access

The City of San Antonio and Bexar County are hoping to narrow the digital divide as they put a combined $32 million toward providing more high speed internet in under-served areas.

Bexar County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to budget $25 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds for expanded internet access, and the City of San Antonio already has nearly $7 million ear-marked for the same purpose.

The city and county have an open request for proposals from internet service providers on their plans to provide high speed access in 37 under-served Census tracts on the South, East, and West sides of the county and city.

The digital divide in the San Antonio area — the difference in high-speed internet options depending on where you live — came into sharp focus during the pandemic. Working from home and remote learning were harder for families who had either sub-par internet access or none at all, whether it was becasue of availability or affordability.

SA Digital Connects, a public-private partnership focused on closing that gap, hopes the county’s money can be leveraged to bring more investment in expanding high-speed internet infrastructure.

“What we’re seeing is that the internet service providers are, with other cities and counties, doing a dollar-for-dollar match. You know, so if if the city or county puts up $5 million, they can put in $5 million. And then all of a sudden you can start working on connecting households with a $10 million budget,” said SA Digital Connects Executive Director Marina Anderete Gavito.

The benchmark the city and county are using is 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed. The city’s request for proposals on “digital connectivity in underserved community areas,” in which the county has a part, also asks ISPs if they would be willing to offer contracts in the 37 Census tracts for $30 per month.

“So the RFP is about affordability and quality regarding the infrastructure. So as ISPs get paid to build out that way, we want to make sure that their offering is affordable to residents. So that’s that $30 mark,” said the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, Brian Dillard.

That price point would mean that users who qualify for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides up to a $30 per month subsidy for internet service, could effectively get their service for free.

The city and county’s combined $37 million is just a portion of the roughly $500 million or more that SA Digital Connects estimates is needed to close the county’s digital divide, but Anderete Gavito says “it is a significant start.”

There are a lot of state and federal funds dedicated to broadband expansion they’ll pursue as well, she said.

“But we need to start now because a lot of those federal and state funding opportunities are not going to be available until the later future,” she told commissioners.