This is the transcript for episode 479 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. On this episode, host Christopher Mitchell is joined by Deanne Cuellar, the State Program Director for Older Adult Technology Services (OATS). They explore the history of the digital divide in San Antonio and Cuellar's role in making the city one of the nation’s leaders in digital inclusion efforts. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.
DeAnne Cuellar: One of the reasons why San Antonio is doing so well on this issue is because we have taken the time to brief people who are running for office that represent San Antonios about TechEquity and Telecommunication Policy issues. Whenever somebody runs for office, regardless of their political party affiliation, I say "I want to talk to you about Digital Inclusion".
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It's been a little while since I said that because we'd recorded a bunch of episodes, and then the little traveling got the team together out here, and now we're back, we're recording more shows. And today we're back with DeAnne Cuellar who is the State Director for OATS which is the Older Adult Technology Services, which is a wonderful group working on Digital Inclusion efforts. Welcome to the show DeAnne.
DeAnne Cuellar: Thanks for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: This is exciting because I don't know if people realize it, but you're in San Antonio, you've been in San Antonio in a variety of positions, both working for the city government and nonprofits and thinking a lot about Digital Inclusion, how to make sure everyone can take advantage of the Internet, everyone has access to it, stuff like that. And San Antonio has quietly become a leader. I think not only is it one of the largest cities in America, but over the top 100 cities in population in the United States, almost none of them have anything even close to what San Antonio is doing around broadband. And so we're going to talk about how that came to be and what it is, but you want to tell us a little bit about OATS first, and then we'll talk about what San Antonio just announced.
DeAnne Cuellar: Older Adults Technology Services from AARP, which is our full name, is our nonprofit organization and Senior Planet is one of our popular Flagship Programs. And our mission, to shorten it is that we work at the intersection of aging and technology, and we currently work on all three legs of the stool as it relates to digital divide.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent, those three legs are?
DeAnne Cuellar: The ownership of a high quality device, a certain level of digital literacy and also access to free or affordable high speed Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. The three-legged stool, which every now and then someone wants to put a fourth leg on it, but then it's just a chair. And I feel like we should stick with the stool.
DeAnne Cuellar: Stick with the stool.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. So what... And I want to be careful when I talk about San Antonio, sometimes I'm talking about just the city and I feel like sometimes we're talking about the county, which is it Bexar? I'm trying to remember now what's the county?
DeAnne Cuellar: It's Bexar County, B-E-X-A-R. Yeah, I forget there's a lot of words in Texas that don't make sense to people outside of Texas but we have lot of influence from the German community, but it's Bexar.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. What just happened in September, what was the announcement a few weeks ago?
DeAnne Cuellar: The announcement a few weeks ago was that several years of a collective impact model resulted in SA Digital Connects. There used to be a handful of TechEquity and Digital Inclusion advocates that worked on closing the Digital divide in Bexar County. Bexar County is the county, the city San Antonio is inside the county. And then a few years ago the Digital Inclusion Alliance form, so we had San Antonio Digital Inclusion Alliance that brought together a group of stakeholders. Then Mayor Ron Nirenberg formed an Innovation and Technology Committee and appointed a Digital Inclusion Liaison, and I got to serve in that role from beginning to end. Several policy and funding priority, meetings and hearings took place officially at the city and the county level, but they also took place at the community level.
DeAnne Cuellar: And then the ecosystem expanded and more partners came in from the city and the county and the nonprofit world and the corporate world, some professional help was made available. So we made a huge investment in coordinating these efforts we put the funding there. And a lot of best build initiatives popped up before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and also still ongoing in the pandemic. And that resulted in a 300 page plus Digital Inclusion Roadmap, probably one of the largest of its kind in the country.
Christopher Mitchell: Now the way you described it, it makes it almost seem like it was destined to happen and of course this is just what happens. But it hasn't happened anywhere else. So, what made Bexar County able to move in this direction?
DeAnne Cuellar: I think a lot of things happened that could be replicated across geographies here in the United States. One, the city of San Antonio adopted racial equity work, as a priority. We were going to do racial equity work like the council decided they decided that that was something we were going to work on, and Digital Inclusion falls under racial equity work. The city San Antonio also has what they call an Equity Atlas, so you can go online and look at overlays of data sets that point you in the directions of the city, where there are infrastructure ails, that we need to address ASAP. Then I think also something that was unique to see San Antonio is there's a lot of people who care about this issue here, not just myself, there are people like Jordan Barton and Munirih Jester who also are San Antonios, the list is long and so I think that the amount of people who came together to care about this issue, which you see in other movement building work was a catalyst for us putting our heads together and doing the work and it happened. It's a beautiful thing.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's go back to last time I was in Texas with you, when I visited San Antonio. And that point you were working for a council member Osuna, right? What was happening back then, is that even the middle of the story is that closer to the beginning?
DeAnne Cuellar: The story I tell is, I was actually in Washington, D.C. with people like you and Harold [inaudible 00:05:58] and William Schlepping to work on all the things, to close the digital divide for media justice. A long list of telecommunication policies and a cybersecurity professional named Leticia Osuna called me, and she said "You talked about there being a municipal broadband network in San Antonio, is that true?" And I said "Yes" And she said "Are we using it the way that we should be using it?" And I said "We could be doing more". And she said "Well, I think I might become the next city Councilwoman for District three If I do, would you come work with me and let's see what we can do". And I said "Sure". And sure enough several days later I was on my way back to San Antonio and working for council Osuna and we put our heads together and we sat down with different people at the city and we said, what can we do within the law with the Municipal broadband network?
DeAnne Cuellar: And we just gave it the language to talk about it, and that resulted in the San Antonio new area broadband network paper. And it's a short, maybe like one to three page white paper that says, here's some things we can try. And several years later, that's another reason why the city San Antonio has broadband access at most if not all city and county owned buildings, hundreds of Wi-Fi access points in public parks and also our via Metropolitan Transit System is also connected to that, so that if you ride the bus and you're on a long trip for 45 minutes, you have access to the Internet. And the cool thing about the buses was that during the pandemic, in those neighborhoods that still have connectivity issues, those buses were able to go out in the community and be a part of the resiliency, the resiliency of trying to keep people connected during the pandemic.
Christopher Mitchell: The community network, the municipal network in San Antonio is something that people may not be familiar with because it's primarily for what we call institutional anchors. And think that's the way it was back then, right? I mean I remember this is a network that's owned by the city's electric utility, which the city owns CPS, and they had fiber in a whole bunch of places. And in my sense was that there was a reluctance at that time to do too much, not because they would actually be violating the State Law, but because they didn't want to be perceived as violating the State Law, which is ultimately one of the bigger problems with these laws is that they cast a bigger shadow than they should because people don't do things they're allowed to do, even though they're allowed to do them because they feel like maybe I'll get in trouble because I'm getting too close to that line. At least that's my sense.
DeAnne Cuellar: I think when that beautiful community asset was built, it was a different time in Texas as it relates to public utility commission laws and policies, and it was seen as a major investment and what they were going to use it for was still being conceptualized. I believe it was built in the early nineties is when that dark fiber throughout the city was set out. And then fast forward, different bills started making their way through the Texas Legislature that were spearheaded by some of the largest telecommunication companies in the country. And so the rules, I would call them like a patchwork, they flexed up and down and adoption was still early, right? The adoption was still early.
DeAnne Cuellar: So I think what ended up happening is someone like Council Osuna was also in her seat at a time when Julian Castro was also a mayor. And what we know about Julian Castro is that he's a pretty innovative thinker, willing to try new things. And he was one of the people who signed on to thinking about what we could do more with that network. And so there were other council members too. So right time, right place is what happened and really set the ground for trying to be more creative with that community asset.w
Christopher Mitchell: And one of the things that I'm fascinated by is I'm wondering about your emotional state, like maybe six months or a year after the paper comes out. Because I feel like at that time, you don't know that you've helped to set motion things that are going to result in really impressive connectivity, better planning, better resources for people throughout the community. I'm curious if six months after that short paper was published, did you feel a frustration, like you were missing opportunities and that sort of thing or was there always just this sense of we're going to get this done?
DeAnne Cuellar: I think being in that position was stressful from beginning to end, because from the beginning until the end people were always telling us what we could not do. There was not a lot of willingness, that's what we called at the time. I remember us saying there is an unwillingness to collaborating and coordinating or even trying. And we had to push through a lot of that unwillingness as to Latinx women in technology, which also at the time very few of us, several years ago, and really had to put our foot down and say, we want to try to see if this works and if it doesn't, then it doesn't. But if we want at least the opportunity to try and fail, and that's what we did is we move forward.
DeAnne Cuellar: And I think at the time, the very first anchor institution that signed on to support us was in Texas A&M University, which was a pretty great partner to have in alignment with us. And then over time as the paper got out, there were a lot of people like in the background saying, you're going to get sued, you're going to get sued. And just always kind of looking over your shoulder, and there were no lawsuits, none of us got sued. The city did not get sued. And there's some really talented people in policy to actually work at CPS and the city and through their expertise they walked us through the legalities of being able to conceptualize in those projects.
Christopher Mitchell: And that I think is good to hear, because I hear from people in other states that have laws as well, that they've just been convinced that they cannot do anything because of this supposed lawsuit. I don't want to belitle the threat a lawsuit because cities really don't like to waste their efforts in the courts when they could be benefiting people, but we can't be intimidated either. Right? So what happens next, so the papers out there circulating Texas A&M signs on what else is happening? I mean this to me also seems like it's a focus on kind of making sure the infrastructure's out there. Does the work on Digital Inclusion and the other legs of the stool, is that happening in parallel? Or how does that develop?
DeAnne Cuellar: I think that those of us who work on this issue are a little bit at a crossroads. Before the pandemic this felt like a really lonely space and one positive result of the pandemic is that the field has just busted open, there's Office of Innovation, Digital Inclusion, layers. There's all these jobs popping up all over the country to do this work, and even here in San Antonio that table has grown, they had to build a bigger table.
DeAnne Cuellar: But I think now one, is that how do we follow through on the plans? Two, how do we show those results to the community, which is what I advocate here locally is this plan is great, but how does the community see the results? How are we going to visualize that something's actually happening? Three, how do we ensure that a lot of these resources that are being talked about at the state and federal level actually make their way to San Antonio, so these projects can be completed. And I think the part that we kind of have for the lack of better words, a pin point or a blind spot is how do we follow through with those projects with digital resiliency, which is kind of a new term that's coming around now, right? These remedies have to be built in a way that can adapt with the community as the community grows, and also keeps the community safe because they deserve privacy and protections. So there's still a lot to do, even though a lot has been done.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I have no doubt about that. I feel like this work in this space is always like hiking when you're going up a hill and you feel like you see the top, and you get to the top just to see the next ridge line and yep still going up.
DeAnne Cuellar: Yes, that's a great way to think about it because I describe it as working on TechEquity is like using an ice pick to make ice, but chipping away at a glacier.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I think I like mine better. So let's talk about the infrastructure piece of it then. So the city has Texas A&M signs up the city gets more bold over time, it seems like. Is that right?
DeAnne Cuellar: I actually used that word recently to describe the city. I agree. I think the city is getting bolder. I think that could be attributed to the leadership, like who's the mayor and who's the city council. We have a pretty progressive looking city council right now. There's also younger council members on there. There's all older council members, and I think that the willingness of the people that represent us matters on how fast or how slow these solutions are going to unfold.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, one of the reasons I think you have that leadership is because you've helped a lot of organizations plug in. I think in lot of cities you have organizations that may not be technologically oriented, who serve a community that desperately needs better broadband access, it's an open secret everyone knows it, but they don't really know how to plug in. Would you say that one of the secrets of San Antonio is helping those groups figure out how to plug in?
DeAnne Cuellar: Yes. I think that one of the reasons why San Antonio is doing so well on this issue is because we have taken the time to brief people who are running for office at the local state and national level that represent San Antonios about TechEquity and Telecommunication Policy issues. I can count myself for sure, I can speak for myself that whenever somebody runs for office, regardless of their political party affiliation, I say I want to talk to you about Digital Inclusion. And they think it's just the three legs of the stool, but I really want to like go deep with them because I want to support people who are going to advance the right policies and the right funding to work out of a job.
Christopher Mitchell: Is that something that you've incorporated into the jobs that you're doing? Because this predates your time with OATS.
DeAnne Cuellar: It's always been my goal to be able to walk away from this issue is like the job is done. I don't know how other people work on this issue, but for me I don't want to be 80 years old saying we haven't done enough. I really want to be able to say we did a great job. I want to connect every San Antonian. I don't know how to do it, but that's what my goal is, my personal goal is.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And it's reachable. I mean, we did that with telephone. We did it with electricity. We did it with water systems, we can get there to where everybody has fair access to Internet access and confidence to know how to use it.
DeAnne Cuellar: Yeah. I think that if I could just say one thing about working at OATS and Senior Planet is when I got to meet Dr. Thomas Kamber and Kim Harris, the reason why I was attracted to that program was because I got to work on all three legs of the stool and it was a program that I could do right now. Right? It's not something that I had to plan for. I could stand up that program pretty quickly and know that I was chipping away at my iceberg with my community. And Senior Planet and San Antonio has reached over 34,000 seniors, and since the program's been around. That's a big number for a Digital Inclusion program of its kind, it's a big number because numbers matter and so when you... And we've measured loneliness and whether or not people connected, and so I'm really proud to have been able to have met the OATS family.
Christopher Mitchell: Would you say that work, which I sort of think of as if we think of the emergency broadband benefit as being something that came along like the work you did before that is kind of being pre-work that you're able to take greater advantage of that program because you had all these connections and everything?
DeAnne Cuellar: Yeah. I mean the good thing about being able to work with the talented people at OATS was knowing that there were people like in the curriculum team that could distill the Emergency Broadband Program into a curriculum so that it could go out into the community so that the community could actually apply for a federal subsidy that work isn't easy to do. And so I think that is another plus of being a part of an organization that understands all three legs of the stool, and if you go look at theagentconnected.org website, it explains why we're working on this issue, why is OATS working on closing the Digital divide.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. So let me just ask, how did the county get involved in this? And I'm curious in part because I'm always entertained by the counties in which there's a lot of friction between a powerful city within the county and the county itself. But in this case it seems like the county and the city worked together pretty well.
DeAnne Cuellar: Well, I can't speak for the county and this city on whether or not they work together well. On the outside looking in, I would say that they do because I'm a constituent, so I can only talk about what I see. I think again the same answer for the council is the leadership. So our commissioners and the judge that lead the county over the 30 years have been people that care about this issue. Judge Wolf, who is retiring is 80 years old, he's been serving in that role I think 20 to 30 years, he opened the BiblioTech, which that's another great Digital Inclusion asset that we have in the community. That was a public private partnership to get digital literacy out into the community.
DeAnne Cuellar: There was also a Commissioner Wolf who I shared with you that article that several years ago you would think a more conservative leader would not have those policy priorities for closing a divide. But like this commissioner knew what the issue was and knew how to write about it and talk about in a way that persuaded more people to the issue, which is always a plus. So I think it co it comes back down to the people that we know that we elected to represent us on this issue.
Christopher Mitchell: What I come back to is that just luck? I mean is it just like luck that Dallas didn't have those people in that San Antonio did or did they emerge from a specific set of circumstances that people helped to craft?
DeAnne Cuellar: No, I don't think it's luck. There are people who write about civic engagement in San Antonio and study it here and write books about it, but San Antonio has a history of civic engagement that goes back to 1900s, to the pecan shellers, to an organization like the [inaudible 00:21:11] Peace and Justice Center fighting for water, preserving housing and historical buildings. Like if anybody who spends any amount of time in San Antonio will run into a community activist and people who are involved in advocacy don't think activism is a bad word here, people are proud to be advocates for issues. So you doesn't take really long, you could come to San Antonio today find a local restaurant and you'll run into somebody who works on some issue, and I think that history of being so involved with our community is what's led to us working on some of the biggest issues that affect our community.
Christopher Mitchell: And I want to ask what is a BiblioTech?
DeAnne Cuellar: BiblioTech they're physical locations, but it's where people can go to try out the latest devices and hardware. And I would have to look it up, but it has a digital library where you can download one of the biggest digital libraries onto your phone or tablet or other device, and it's available at no cost to every San Antonio.
Christopher Mitchell: That's cool.
DeAnne Cuellar: It's very cool.
Christopher Mitchell: So is there anything else that I missed that we should cover? What are some of the concrete things that we're going to see San Antonio doing in coming years to make sure that everyone's well connected?
DeAnne Cuellar: I think those of us who work on TechEquity and Digital Inclusion and Closing the Digital Divide are going to spend some time now going outside of our community to talk about how we did what we did. And I'm not just talking about myself. I think that the Office of Innovation at the city of San Antonio you'll see those names popping up on GovTech panels across the country, because I believe municipalities are going to want to know how did you move the needle? And I think that they should, I think that some people that are in the tech community that have joined to work on this issue, you'll also see their names popping up at comfort season summits. So I think that the names of the people who are working on this issue are going to start springing up all over the place.
DeAnne Cuellar: And what I hope that results in people coming to the city of San Antonio to work with us on this issue. I hope that results in not just the federal resources, but private resources that can come to the city of San Antonio, maybe this could be like a testing ground for some of these concepts, a real Digital Inclusion lab of trying and failing on some of these issues. And I hope it also encourages people to move here and the social justice activist in me really hopes at the end of the day that it amplifies the stories of San Antonio that need to get out to attract those resources. So that's what my hopes and dreams are for some of this.
Christopher Mitchell: And that was going to be my last question, but you said something twice now that I'm going to just prompt you on and that is try and fail. And you'd mentioned earlier that Leticia Osuna had said, let's try this even if we fail. Why aren't you afraid of failure? Most of us are, are really afraid of failure and you seem to be embracing that you might be failing at some of this stuff.
DeAnne Cuellar: I don't know if this word makes sense, but I believe that there is glamor in failure. I think it's more attractive to try and see if something works than to not try at all. And that's how my mind works is that I actually feel something physically from not being able to try and councilwoman Osuna was similar that she could put something in front of her. And again, also I want to give credit to the mayor at the time Julian Castro, you could put something in front of her and if it was pragmatic and it was viable, then they as policy makers were willing to try.
DeAnne Cuellar: And I think that there's two things, when I'm on the outside looking into other communities that are doing this work I see two things, I see that the unwillingness to try and fail, and I also see that there is a lack of building trust in local communities. And so I think you need both, and one thing that I think is successful in San Antonio that you'll see in that Digital Inclusion Roadmap is that we point out the trust part, and that is something that comes from movement building work if you study people like Adrianne Maree Brown and Emergent Strategy or the best and worst practices of relational organizing with Cece Abrams is that you can only move these big ideas at the speed of trust. And so that trust is basically AKA grassroots organizing is really getting in there and rolling up your sleeves and doing that hard step by step field work.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. I feel like there's a joke in there about the wallpaper on your computer being the Hindenberg crashing into the Titanic, but now there's such a good answer. That was like, I just I can't use it.
DeAnne Cuellar: I know. I mean well, it's also back to the thing what we were talking about lawsuits, right? I mean that's every day, I feel like it used to be whenever you worked on telecom policy or technology, the threat of lawsuits with make the hair stick up on the of side of your neck or something. But now it's like that just seems like the go to top line messaging for forwarding efforts of advancement across sectors, right? You might get sued, you might get sued. And it's like, oh will you? I mean because there's all of these things popping up across the country and there's threats of lawsuits, but there's not really any lawsuits, those kinds of lawsuits happening, and I don't think that's ever going to go away. But I think that the people who work on this issue have become a little bit more resilient to that threat of not even trying. These are difficult conversations to have.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And I've talked with people from other large cities across the United States and there's this fear and you're right it's a lack of trust. And I just I think a, without even me having to suggest it, you've, you've really provided a strong reason that people should consider moving to San Antonio, if they're relocating. Sounds like a wonderful place in a long-
DeAnne Cuellar: Oh yeah. I mean if anybody here in San Antonio wants put me in charge of convincing people to move here, I would do a great job. Well, I mean Tacos, I mean, that's the number one reason to move here is Tacos.
Christopher Mitchell: All right. Well next time I come down I know what I'll be eating.
DeAnne Cuellar: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much DeAnne.
DeAnne Cuellar: Oh you're welcome, you're welcome.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast at muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is at community nets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this another podcast from ILSR including building local power, local energy rules and the composting for community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. While you're there please take a moment to donate, your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through creative comments. This was the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.