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Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Austin’s Digital Inclusion Program Connecting the Less Connected

By Leticia Torres Published December 2019

Digital Ambassador Kimberlyn Barton-Reyes helps HACA resident Gloria Arzola use a search tool on the internet.

Austin considers itself the tech hub of Texas — so much so that it has embraced the nickname “Silicon Hills.” U.S. News & World Report has consistently ranked it as one of the nation’s best places to live. So it would be logical to assume its residents lead the nation in digital inclusion.

But that assumption would be incorrect.

Much work remains to be done to ensure digital inclusion for the city’s population, with the opportunity to access the internet and gain the knowledge and skills required for digital literacy, says Catherine Crago Blanton, head of strategic initiatives for the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) and Austin Pathways, a nonprofit subsidiary.

The first indication that a substantial portion of Austin’s population was being left behind came in 2014, as the result of a collaborative digital inclusion assessment project between the city of Austin and HACA’s nonprofit subsidiary Austin Pathways (Exhibit 1). Crago Blanton calls the results of that project a wake-up call that rang loud and clear.

Exhibit 1: Austin Digital Inclusion Assessment, 2014
(all figures approximate)

Criteria Findings
Access 55,000 adult residents did not use the internet.
Relevance 22,000 were not interested in using the internet.
Affordability Cost was an issue for 3 out of every 5 internet non-users.

Source: 2014 Digital Austin Assessment

“We did a survey on a couple of our properties and found that only 8 percent of our residents had an internet connection at home,” Crago Blanton says. “About 15 percent had some internet connection in the past.”

Crago Blanton says the study also revealed that, among HACA residents who reported owning a computer, about 30 percent reported it didn’t work. They used it for a DVD player or were saving money to get it fixed.

When Google Fiber entered the Austin market in 2014, however, the company provided 100 Community Connections — locations that receive 1,000 Mbps of symmetrical broadband service — to the city of Austin, free of charge.

In response, HACA created the Unlocking the Connection program with a goal to connect 100 percent of its residents with free or very low-cost internet service. Google Fiber became HACA’s first partner and committed to providing free internet to every HACA household in its service area.

Fast forward five years, and Crago Blanton says HACA is making great progress in reaching that goal (Exhibit 2). In fact, Unlocking the Connection became the inspiration for ConnectHome, a White House-United States Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative that has since been recognized with numerous national awards.

Exhibit 2: Austin Home Internet Connection and Device Ownership
(number surveyed: 997)

Device 2014 2018
Home Internet Connection 92% 94.70%
Desktop Computer 56.80% 47.80%
Laptop Computer 83.40% 76.10%
Tablet Computer 59.80% 69.20%
Cell Phone 95.60% 99%
Smartphone 83% 97%

Source: Digital Inclusion in Austin Final Report, 2018 Austin Digital Assessment Survey

“We have about 4,800 residents in subsidized housing, and right now 2,312 residents have free in-home internet, which equals 53 percent of our residents,” says Crago Blanton. “We’re just over halfway there.”

Besides striving to reach that 100 percent mark, HACA is collaborating through various community partnerships to provide digital literacy training to all its residents.

“We’ve had 1,300 residents complete more than 30,000 hours of digital literacy training, and more than 1,100 have earned refurbished desktops, laptops and smartphones since 2015,” Crago Blanton says.

For about 60 percent of those residents who earned a desktop or laptop, Crago Blanton says it’s the first computer they’ve ever owned.

As much as HACA would like to celebrate its accomplishments, the organization remains focused on getting the remaining half of its residents connected, a task Crago Blanton admits won’t be easy. She says that two words best describe the challenges that lie ahead: relevance and trust.

“Relevance speaks to how digital inclusion is going to help my family succeed,” says Crago Blanton. “How are these tools going to help my child do their homework at home, improve my work options, improve my family’s health and well-being?”

Crago Blanton says most residents can see that digital tools and know-how will help the family: If you have internet and a computer at home, you can check your bank balance at any time. You can pay your rent online. Otherwise, you’d have to take time off from work for those kinds of errands.

The trust part, she says, relates to online security concerns.

“It’s all throughout the media,” she says. “So even folks that don’t use digital tools know that they need to be secure to go online. We did a survey that showed the number-one reason people don’t go online is fear of safety and security issues.”

How to overcome that fear? Crago Blanton says that’s where the human connection, provided by HACA’s core team of residents as digital ambassadors, comes into play.

“The human connection drives technology adoption,” she says. “How do you find out about new apps and how to use them? Well, your neighbor tells you. That’s how most people learn about technology.”

“They are natural, social problem solvers,” Crago Blanton says of the HACA digital ambassadors. “They are trust builders.”

One of those digital ambassadors is Kimberlyn Barton-Reyes, a seven-year HACA resident. Although Barton-Reyes has served as a digital ambassador for only two years, she knows progress when she sees it, because she’s been a part of it.

“I’m at an elderly, disabled [person’s] property,” she says, “and for the elderly to actually participate so strongly in a program like that says there’s a disconnect here and they’re actually wanting services.”

HACA’s Crago Blanton couldn’t agree more.

“We have an imperative to ensure residents are connected because economic mobility depends on digital inclusion. To operate as efficiently as we can, we must transform to digital rent payments, work orders and even leases that residents can sign electronically.”

Digital inclusion is an issue that extends beyond Texas’ major cities: about a million Texans living outside major metropolitan areas can’t access high-speed internet. The Texas Comptroller’s office examines the state of broadband in Texas’ rural communities and proposals for fixing the system in our October 2019 issue of Fiscal Notes.

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