Closing the Digital Divide

Closing the Digital Divide

By Jo Ana Alvarado, Director of Innovative Technology at Opportunity Home

Digital connectivity is essential to most every aspect of the world we live in today.

Opportunity Home has been working on digital equity since 2013. We started with two community rooms. We had our first community room open with five refurbished computers, a printer and Wi-Fi for connectivity. We soon learned that our residents after hours were hanging around the parking lot in their cars, mothers with children and parents seeking ways to connect to the internet.

It was then we knew we needed to do more. I knew my work to narrow the digital divide for our residents was far from over. We had barely touched the surface of the issue. Eventually with little or no budget, we expanded our community room connectivity to 50 community rooms, refurbished over 200 computers and started training residents on cyber safety and now to connect their donated devices.

Public internet access remained available in a property’s community room for the next few years. We continued our efforts working with external partners that donated funds. Every time we received some funds, we expanded our community room Wi-Fi for all property access. We did this with an internal IT staff of 3! By 2020 when the pandemic hit, we had only completed three properties. We knew this wasn’t going to be enough for residents, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to adjust how they operated. Due to income status, they could not adjust to a “new normal” like much of the rest of San Antonio.

As Opportunity Home’s director of Innovative Technology, I’m grateful to our Board of Commissioners for approving a $4 million budget in 2020. The allocation was used for the installation of Wi-Fi throughout all public housing and mixed income communities to provide an enhanced service that will give residents the opportunity to excel in their communities.

To date, we have connected all 74 communities with public Wi-Fi, giving 24,276 residents the ability to access no cost internet at any part of their community and be able to complete tasks that may have been impossible without it, such as educational tasks, applications for employment and scheduling medical appointments.

This expansion project has been one of the most rewarding accomplishments of my career, especially as a Latina woman leader in the field of technology, where there are currently 28% of us in such a position, according to Development Dimensions International.

Executing such a dynamic and much-needed project would not have been possible without a dedicated team that included an army of dedicated external partners that really understood our mission. Our internal IT team took on learning new technological capabilities, cloud management of Wi-Fi infrastructure, Wi-Fi analytics and reporting, bandwidth management and implemented solar mesh at one of our large properties by using solar power to power Wi-Fi network devices on 42 solar poles. Through it all, they never lost sight of our mission and went above and beyond to connect the unconnected, overcoming various challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain, logistics and permitting issues.

I always refer to three words of ABILITY that are key to maintaining digital equity:
sustainability, ability and capability will ensure we are able to keep the Wi-Fi available for our residents and maintain the ability to stay connected to have the capability to meet the demands of the digital world.

Myself and the entire organization are excited for the possibilities that will arise when our residents are digitally connected. And stay digitally connected. Our work continues. We are not done.

Ensuring equitable outcomes throughout the San Antonio community is our top priority and that starts with closing the digital divide.