By Collen Billiot and John Speirs, City of Austin

Please give us a brief overview on the status of broadband connectivity in Austin.

The most recent Austin Digital Assessment conducted in 2017 by the City in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin indicates that 95% of respondents have a home broadband Internet connection. This is higher than comparable national statistics of 65% and the previous 2014 Assessment’s 92% respectively. However, that still leaves 5% of the City’s population (over 48,000 residents) without access to home Internet services which can affect daily life.

What concerns do residents have about broadband access?

Residents who lack broadband access at home cited several obstacles to adoption. The top four reasons are: privacy concerns, cost of home Internet access, lack of a digital device, and lack of digital literacy.      

Has the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted broadband connectivity or spurred action to increase and/or diversify connectivity in Austin? Are there specific challenges that residents face as a result of COVID-19? Are there challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic?

COVID-19 has certainly highlighted, at the local, state, and national levels, the importance of having home broadband Internet connections. Since the beginning of the pandemic, City offices, private sector partners, educational institutions, and local nonprofits have worked even more closely to try and address the digital divide in Austin. 

The Digital Empowerment Community of Austin (DECA), which is comprised of all these entities, has held frequent, regularly scheduled calls to discuss the digital pain points within our community and how we might address them. A great deal of focus has been placed on supplying connectivity and devices to school-aged children, members of the workforce, and seniors throughout the pandemic. 

DECA members, including our own contracted non-profit partner Austin Free-Net, have worked closely with the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to supply refurbished devices to students in need. AISD has also formed partnerships to equip buses to provide a wireless hotspot signal in neighborhoods where many lack Internet access. AISD has also partnered with our local transit authority, Capital Metro, which is deploying wireless hotspots while transit ridership is down. City partners, such as the Austin Public Library system, are also supplying hotspots to those in need. However, installing home broadband Internet access to those who do not have it would be the optimal long-term solution.

Organizations such as Mission Capital and the Austin Urban Technology Movement are conducting surveys to ensure DECA and our office stay on top of the needs of residents. The data collected is also helpful organizations seeking resources and funding to close the digital divide.

We find ourselves in a time when many are working from home and are having to learn how to operate in a virtual space. Initiatives for members of the workforce and seniors must focus on digital literacy as much as accessibility. For elders who have faced longer periods of isolation during this pandemic, understanding how to utilize technology can help them to stay connected to loved ones and the outside world. 

We hope that the partnerships and projects born of this time will help to continue closing that digital divide even after the threat of COVID-19 has waned.

What are potential solutions to the broadband connectivity challenges in Austin?

Austin is focused on exploring partnerships with other government and private entities that can help to expand connectivity, provide devices, and deploy training programs. Those efforts help build resiliency for those that were impacted by COVID-19. 

Raising awareness of and continuing low cost Internet option plans offered by local Internet Service Providers is also an important component of comprehensive connectivity. City Council members and several City offices have collaborated with our partners in the private sector on this issue for quite some time, even prior to COVID-19, and will continue to do so.

Austin supports any legislation to protect long-held local authority to manage the public rights of way, honor our Constitutionally guaranteed protection of fair compensation on the use of public assets, and maintain our Congressionally recognized right to govern the siting of cell towers and small cells in our communities. Any legislation to support municipal authority enables universal, affordable broadband access for residents, while responsibly managing the public rights of way and other public properties for all users. We also support negotiations and buildout requirements that increase digital equity for residents.

Are there organizations, initiatives, and/or individuals that are working to increase broadband connectivity/access whose work is integral to connecting Austin and should be highlighted?

Numerous member organizations of the DECA community have worked tirelessly to continue supporting our residents in the face of a pandemic. This list is not comprehensive.

Austin Groups for the Elderly (AGE) of Central Texas

American Youthworks

Austin Community College

Austin Free-Net

Austin PBS

Austin Public

Austin Tech Alliance

Austin Urban Technology Movement

Capital City Innovation

Capital IDEA

City of Austin (various offices and council members)

Community Tech Network

Creative Action

Foundation Communities

Goodwill Central Texas

Google Fiber

Housing Authority City of Austin

Knowbility

Latinitas

Ruckify