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Building Sustainable Solutions for Digital Inclusion with Local Leadership in Austin, Texas

In Austin, Texas, local leaders tap into community knowledge and expertise through their groundbreaking Leadership Austin fellowship program. 

On July 21st, 2021, Next Century Cities hosted a virtual conference featuring local leadership from California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. During the session, Building Sustainable Solutions for Digital Inclusion in Equity Post the COVID-19 Pandemic, we were joined by Rondella Hawkins, Director of the City of Austin, Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs (TARA), and Khotan Harmon, a Digital Inclusion Fellow with the Leadership Austin program. Harmon introduced the fellowship program to conference attendees and explored the many benefits of designing and implementing similar programs in other municipalities. 

In her position as a Leadership Fellow, Harmon brings outside and fresh perspectives to the TARA team. Also a small business owner, she helps inform city leadership about the surrounding community’s needs, especially on topics that may be blindspots for municipal administration. Harmon is uniquely positioned to help expand municipal officials’ networks and highlight connectivity needs among populations that may not be included in broadband program discussions. 

Harmon’s work is focused on finding solutions to Austin’s digital divide and ways to bring reliable and affordable broadband to all Austin residents. Especially in light of COVID-19, the City has focused on ensuring continuity of government services, including those for disconnected populations. According to Harmon, the driving question for her project remains: “How do we identify, reach, and engage Austinites who are most isolated from the resources and services of the City?”

Using research, interviews, and analysis, Harmon is collaborating with the City of Austin’s telecommunications team to identify five pillars of a sustainable digital inclusion strategy. 

  1. Affordability (competition in pricing);
  2. Internet connectivity (ubiquitous and reliable);
  3. Devices (appropriate for use and age);
  4. Training (skill development that is language and age-appropriate); and 
  5. IT support (a continued service through the journey). 

The City of Austin hopes to tackle their digital divide in a sustainable way that addresses immediate needs, bridges the gaps, and implements long-term solutions. Partnerships that provide manpower and expertise, such as the collaboration with Leadership Austin, are advancing that goal. 

View the full conversation here and presentation here.


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