Solving for Austin's Digital Access Challenges in Response to COVID-19

Shift to Virtual Landscape Requires Quick Pivots, New Collaboration, and Policy Perspective

Across the country, many people are noticing gaps in broadband that impact community resilience, as COVID-19 has highlighted the staggering digital divide between those who have access to affordable internet services and those who do not. The pandemic has made these inequities apparent, as individuals and families struggle to cope with the shift to a virtual landscape without the resources needed to fully participate. As local community organizations scramble to connect the people they serve, they are coordinating to inform and educate Austin residents about low-cost internet service options, reduce duplication of effort, and ensure the greatest number of low-income residents can be served. As we move into the 87th Legislative Session, bridging Austin’s digital divide requires simultaneous focus on the roles social services providers, internet service providers (ISPs), and policy makers can play. Austin nonprofits and low-income residents are coming together to ensure our most vulnerable residents are included.
ISPs, companies that grant internet access to subscribers, are essential actors in improving digital equity and inclusion. Questions have arisen of how ISPs and nonprofits can better collaborate to serve low-income communities, ensuring that low-income consumers have timely, accurate information about low-income offers and the tools they need to sign up for discounted service.
For residents of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), affordable high-speed internet service is a necessary step towards accessing workforce development, education opportunities, and healthcare, among others. However, this task can prove to be challenging when examining the various components required. Several Texas ISPs offer discounted service for low-income Austin residents, but residents say complications arise when trying to gauge the most affordable options, assess service coverage and speed, and navigate enrollment and contract processes.

A shared understanding about our needs and affordable internet options

In August, 10 Austin nonprofits serving 20,000+ Austin residents in subsidized public and affordable housing joined to explore shared needs and potential solutions. Their aim: equitable long-term affordable high-speed internet for their clients. On August 28, 2020, HACA hosted a convening for ISPs to gather and discuss their low-cost options. Representatives from AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Google Fiber, PCs for People, and T-Mobile informed the group about their lowest-cost offers, desires to support low-income communities and common pitfalls some low-income consumers face when registering for low-cost service. General themes that recurred throughout this convening were low adoption rates of low-cost offers, variant speeds depending on a consumer’s location, temporary discounts in response to COVID-19, and most service providers requiring some form of documentation of enrollment in programs such as SNAP to determine eligibility. Google Fiber was the exception, with place-based eligibility for low-cost programs determined entirely by a consumer’s address in Austin. Another commonality between the offers was the recommended method of enrolling online, which could pose potential complications for low-income residents lacking reliable home internet access.
(Note: All of the offers discussed above are as of August 28, 2020. The notes from this convening further detailing these offers can be found here. A list of offers can also be found on the National Digital Inclusion Associate website).

Why is this important?

Due to the previously stated importance of the internet access during the pandemic, the City of Austin, in partnership with HACA, plans to further the conversation between ISPs and low-income residents, and learn of potential priorities and tools for the upcoming session in the Texas State Legislature.
Below are a series of questions that we plan to work through with ISPs, nonprofit partners, and members of the community. These questions were developed in response to the findings from the August 28th convening, and aim to examine how digital equity can be expanded in both the short and long term.
  1. 1.
    What outreach efforts are made by ISPs to reach low-income communities? Within the umbrella of outreach are advertising and communication efforts made both before and during COVID-19, when door-to-door outreach has been compromised. An open conversation on this topic will identify meaningful areas for expansion or new outreach tactics to reach low-income residents in Austin.
  2. 2.
    What would a digital equity scorecard look like, and how can we develop one in conjunction with the community? The purpose of a digital equity scorecard would be to examine service providers’ institutional goals and efforts thus far to provide low-cost internet offers to targeted communities in Austin. This scorecard would develop a framework through which ISPs can evaluate their own contributions to closing the digital divide in regards to affordability and access, and is intended to be developed in conjunction with community members’ input.
  3. 3.
    How can the community facilitate a direct dialogue with ISPs to ensure that needs are being met? Direct conversation between these two entities is critical in working towards digital inclusion. The best way for ISPs to ensure that their services are serving low-income communities is to connect directly with and listen to community members share their experiences. From this, both parties can come away with a better idea of what these services are, and how to move forward to ensure that community needs are being met.

What comes next?

In order to address these questions, the City of Austin and HACA will be hosting a series of events to serve our lowest-income residents. Nonprofits, community members, some ISPs, and policy makers will work together to set clear goals to close the digital divide in Austin. Event details will be announced soon.
Digital ATX hosts a community calendar with upcoming events related to digital inclusion and equity. The calendar can be found here.
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