Connecting a Whole Community

Austin and Google Fiber move to bridge the digital divide

Connecting a Whole Community
Illustration by Jason Stout

From a quiet room at the back corner of the DeWitty Job Training Center on Rose­wood Avenue, the only noise heard down the hallway was of fingers hitting keyboards and mice clicking away. For many of the hundreds of people who filter in and out of the East Austin computer center, one of the more than 30 affiliated sites around town, it's their first time online.

"There are people who come in here that have never touched a computer. We try to eliminate the barriers to access; by doing so, we help bridge not just the digital divide but, hopefully, the economic divide," said Juanita Budd, executive director of Austin Free-Net, a local nonprofit that has provided technology training and access for the community since 1995.

Budd understands well that having Internet access is directly correlated with a better quality of life, a more equal playing field, and upward mobility. With job searches, health care, social service benefit forms, billing, research, homework, and socializing all tied to online connectivity, the Internet today is arguably a basic utility, comparable to electricity, although it is not technically regulated as such. So in April 2013, when Internet giant Google announced plans to lay down fiber-optic cable in Austin and offer "gigabit" Internet speeds up to 100 times faster than average broadband service at relatively low prices, Budd and digital inclusion advocates were excited, albeit cautiously.

As a trailblazer in promoting a digitally engaged society, Austin has, in many respects, led the way in helping bridge the "digital divide" – the disparity between those able to access and use the Internet and those cast offline. As the city continues to chart its own digital future, many wonder how the new Fiber plan will fit in to the ongoing effort to bring connectivity to those who need it most, and if those plans will ultimately bring the city digital equity.

Keep Austin Wired

Austin has spent the past two decades priming itself to be an ideal site for a plan as innovative as Google Fiber. Buoyed by an influx of federal and state funding over the years, Austin has led the nation in its digital inclusion efforts since the mid-Nineties, when the city provided seed money to finance Free-Net computers. Funds flowed during the Clinton administration's push for digital education in the new information age, but dried up after the Bush-era ideological shift beginning in 2001. Obama's tech-minded administration revived the effort through programs like the ConnectED initiative – a plan to connect all American schools with high-speed broadband access by 2017. As for state funding, the 1995 Texas Infrastructure Fund, a $1.5 billion grant program implemented over 10 years, helped finance technology in schools and libraries – before it was repealed by the Legislature in 2007. Inter­mit­tent­ly, local partners like the Dell Founda­tion supplied funding through the Wired for Youth program to help teens bridge the digital divide.

In addition to outside funding, the city established its own stream, the Grant for Technology Opportunities (GTOPS) program, some 14 years ago. Currently funded at $200,000 per year and awarded to between eight and 10 nonprofits, the matching-fund program helps provide digital training and computers to the community, including for Austin ISD afterschool programs and the disabled. The last round of grants supplied funding for programs like River City Youth Founda­tion's bilingual digital technology empowerment and mobilization program for low-income parents and children in Southeast Austin, and scholarships for Girlstart's STEM-skills based summer camp. GTOPS is one of the few of its kind in the nation, said John Speirs, head of the city's Digital Inclusion Program – Seattle has the only other model. "In a lot of cases, for the clients and populations we are serving, it's the first time they're exposed to enhanced technology services; their first time using a computer; their first time using digital media," said Speirs, who plans to go to bat for a $50,000 increase in GTOPS funding in the next budget cycle.

When Google came knocking on Speirs' department door to request rights-of-way for fiber-line construction, the city struck another novel deal to further address the digital gap. In conjunction with the citywide rollout, the Community Connections program will provide free gigabit speed to 100 facilities for 10 years. The plan provides services not just to public entities (libraries, schools, government offices), but also to an array of groups, including arts, film, and theatre organizations, St. Edward's and Huston-Tillotson uni­versi­ties, youth groups, and social service nonprofits. In early summer, Twin Oaks Library in Bouldin Creek is expected to be the first to experience the ultra-fast connection through the Google-Austin partnership.

The effort to bridge the divide hasn't been all about funding, but also includes crafting a methodical strategy. During her final days as a City Council member, Laura Morrison, then chair of the Emerging Tech­nology and Telecommunications Com­mit­tee, pointed to two major initiatives. Seeing the issue of digital divide absent from the comprehensive 30-year Imagine Austin plan – a "gross oversight," she called it – Morrison moved to amend the plan. A separate Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan was established last year, a road map to chart where the city should invest its resources to get all citizens wired; again, one of the few of its kind in the country. The other step came in the form of residential technology surveys – one conducted in 2011 and another in 2014 with assistance from the UT-Aus­tin Radio-Television-Film Depart­ment – to assess which Austin residents are online, which are off, and why: a glimpse into the digital divide's contributing factors. "From homework to applying to jobs to relating to friends," said Morrison, "in the big picture it's very important that we take digital inclusion very seriously as a key element of helping everyone prosper."

The results show connectivity is inextricably tied to race, education, and income. In general, home Internet usage is lowest among Austin's least educated, its poorest, Latinos, and recent immigrants, the study finds. While the results of the latest study are still preliminary, it shows slightly fewer residents have home Internet access in 2014 (92%) than did in 2010 (94%). Roughly 55,000 Austinites do not use Internet on any device and, notably, more than half of them (66% in 2011 and 62% in 2014) cite cost as the main reason. The results don't stray far from the national pattern: Internet usage is less likely among minorities, those without a high school degree, and those who earn an income of less than $30,000, according to Pew Research Internet Project data.

With expense as a central barrier, it would follow that Google's reasonably priced, super-fast Fiber network would help bring connectivity to those who need it most.

Not so fast.

When Google Fiber arrived in Kansas City, Kansas (and later in Kansas City, Mo.), the first city awarded the Fiber service, many had high hopes it would dramatically bridge the divide. But as multiple media reports and even a Wall Street Journal survey have shown, that hasn't been the case. The service ended up largely in the hands of educated, high-income, white communities, and bypassed low-income residents and minorities.

The 2014 WSJ-conducted survey of six low-income Kansas City neighborhoods found that just 10% of residents subscribe to Google's Fiber service and another 5% use the slower "free" version. In comparison, 42% of residents in five close-by middle and higher-income neighborhoods have subscribed to the service, with an additional 11% accessing the slower version.

The disparity was mostly a result of bar­riers found in the pricing structure. To sign up for Fiber, residents needed Internet access to begin with; they had to pay a $10 pre-registration fee and comply with a demand-driven model that only provides the service if enough residents in a "Fiber­hood" community sign up, meaning that even if an apartment renter pays the $300 construction fee for "free" basic broadband Internet, her connection is dependent on whether enough of her neighbors want – and can afford – the service. With a registration process that tilts toward higher-income residents and homeowners, those who likely needed the service most remained offline.

And so, the question for Austin becomes, amid the excitement of the super-fast speeds Google will bring the city, could it actually have the effect of exacerbating the digital divide?

Inequity in the Technopolis

AISD employees Rogelio Guzman (l) and Les Ready help AISD parent Netta Pierre set up her AISD account at Austin Pathways/Digital Inclusion's Tech Feria.
AISD employees Rogelio Guzman (l) and Les Ready help AISD parent Netta Pierre set up her AISD account at Austin Pathways/Digital Inclusion's Tech Feria. (Photo by John Anderson)

Even with all the local initiatives in place, Austin's role as a growing tech hub has widened the digital imbalance for minorities, argues Inequity in the Technopolis, a 10-year longitudinal study of the city's digital divide. Taking into account the city's structural segregation, the authors delve into the unintended consequences of Austin's tech boom, making the case that its rise as a "technopolis" in the last two decades has aggravated those structural disparities. For example, while technology companies opened up job opportunities for high-skilled workers, the industry largely left behind Latino and African-American workers, or provided only de-skilled and low-paid jobs. The shining new economy also helped drive up property prices and cost of living – even while the wealth disparity expanded.

"In a high-informationalized, globalized economy, the factory work and middle management gets hollowed out. The part left doing well is the upper end of the economy – the people that know how to use technology well," said UT Radio-TV-Film professor Joseph Straubhaar, co-editor of the book, during an interview with the Chronicle. "One of the flaws of the Austin model was that it tried to include East Austin in the manufacturing part by putting factories on the Eastside, considered hazardous and even an example of environmental racism by some."

It would have been more effective, he continued, to come up with ways to improve schooling on the Eastside in order to give students a shot at the higher-paid part of the economy instead of getting stuck on the services side. "But the solution is not unimaginable," offered co-editor and UT RTF doctoral candidate Jeremiah Spence. "You engage the population on the periphery and provide access, training, and education."

Enter the Housing Authority of the City of Austin. Flanked by U.S. Housing and Urban Devel­op­ment Secretary Julián Cas­tro and state Sen. Kirk Watson, in late November HACA President and CEO Michael Gerber announced yet another plan to help bridge the digital divide, outside East Austin's Booker T. Wash­ing­ton Terraces. In partnership with Google Fiber and more than 20 national and local groups, the city would offer 4,300 public housing residents living in the 18 HACA developments across the city a chance to join the high-speed Internet rollout for free (or nominal cost) for the next decade. The "Unlocking the Connection" initiative would, in theory, alter the cultural fabric of Austin and help close the gap between the digital haves and have-nots, said Gerber. And in keeping with Austin's pioneering tradition of digital inclusion, the plan would serve as a national blueprint.

"It's clear that, without broadband, folks are less likely to graduate high school, less likely to get high-paying, 21st century jobs – they start out at a disadvantage," said HUD's Castro. "So what you're doing here in Austin is a national model for what ought to happen in the United States of America for our young people."

The initiative would not only provide computers and Fiber access, but perhaps the most important and often overlooked facet of digital inclusion – computer skills training and digital literacy. It's not enough to simply place the technology in front of someone, stress Gerber, Morrison, Budd, and Straubhaar; you have to show people how to use it and why it's relevant to their lives. The city's tech survey reinforces the notion that many need assistance – nearly 60% of non-users said they would need help getting online.

And by strategically targeting those traditionally left offline – the average household income for a public housing family hovers at $14,000 a year; many are elderly and most minority, per 2013-14 data from HACA – the Google plan remedies at least some of the major barriers facing low-income communities in Kansas City.

"I've said before, in some ways it's really nice to come in second in the Google Fiber world because we have been able to learn from the experiences in Kansas City," said Morrison. However, she and other digital inclusion advocates are under no illusion the corporate giant is the sole solution. "Google Fiber is certainly not going to be the one and only answer to bridging the digital divide – I do think the HACA plan clearly shows they can be a great partner in moving the ball forward, but they are not the be-all and end-all."

The sign-up process for South Austin's Manchaca Village – to be the first Fiber-equipped development – is well under way, Sylvia Blanco, HACA executive vice president, told the Chronicle, as are sign-ups for digital literacy classes at Free-Net.

"Our residents are really excited and proud about being pioneers for this plan," said Blanco. "Our goal is to see more children graduating high school and college and entering the workforce competitively. We want our residents to secure living-wage jobs that can afford them a home outside of public housing. This program enables us to even the playing field for those that have historically not had access to these services because it's simply outside their means."

Fiber Up

Standing in front of a colorful van designed by local artist Mike Johnston, former Austin state Representative Mark Stra­ma told media that residents in south and southeast parts of the city could officially sign up for Google Fiber on Dec. 1, roughly a year following the initial plan announcement. In the long-anticipated reveal, Strama, now heading Google Fiber for Austin, also informed the audience that behind him a "Fiber Space" – to eventually occupy some 23,000 square feet of Downtown real estate – is being constructed at the site of the former Austin Children's Museum (since moved to Mueller), to be available for class field trips, live music shows, town halls, and DIY production studio work. But what he wouldn't announce is the date or location of the next Fiber rollout. "We aren't being coy," he said. "We just don't want to get it wrong." Google spokesperson Lauren Barriere later reiterated, "Right now we're focused on getting folks in South Austin signed up. We haven't yet announced where sign-ups will open next."

What we do know: Sign-ups for the Bluebonnet neighborhood close Jan. 29; Lady Bird Lake, March 12; Emerald Forest, April 23; Ben White, June 4; and Onion Creek, July 16. Barriere said nearly all regions in Bluebonnet have reached their sign-up goals, including a number of Fiber­hoods with HACA properties. The plan is to install the majority of customers within six months of their sign-up deadline, she said; the ultimate goal is to give all of Aus­tin the opportunity to cruise the 1-gig speeds.

But that's if competitors don't beat Google to the punch.

San Marcos-based Grande Communi­ca­tions led the pack last year, when it rolled out 1-gig speeds in Buda, West Austin, and West Campus, well in advance of Google Fiber. Feeling the market pressure, telecom giant AT&T U-verse followed suit, offering up a "GigaPower" plan in mid-2014; then came Time Warner Cable's decision to increase its Internet speeds sixfold, at no additional cost.

With ramped-up media consolidation after massive telecom deregulation in the late Nineties, the ISP landscape for consumers assured a virtual monopoly; most Americans today choose between two broadband Internet providers or have no choice, and either way, are resigned to the ISP's typically high price points.

But Google may be helping change the game, with what's been called the "Google Fiber Effect": Their entrance into the Austin market shook up telecom behemoths enough to compel them to offer competitive prices, and spurred a fiber war that should ultimately benefit consumers.

"One of the best things about the Google Fiber plan is that it's forcing everyone else to ramp up their speeds and lower their prices," said Straubhaar. "AT&T, for example, are lethargic; they're a quasi-monopoly and in a very comfortable position at that. They have no reason to innovate unless someone comes along and challenges them. But now they've preemptively offered up gigabit Internet, trying to get ahead of Google. So even if this is all just a clever ruse on Google's part to achieve that type of competition, it's a pretty successful clever ruse," Straubhaar added with a grin.

However, even with the introduction of competition and the HACA plan, some barriers remain: The Fiberhood demand-model ensures service contingent upon the will of a substantial number of neighborhood residents; for transient renters, the $300 one-time fee or $25/month "free" plan cannot be transferred to a new residence; and while Google will waive the $300 construction fee at those HACA properties, HACA residents will still need to pay $10 to register, which could be a substantial burden for the city's poorest residents.

The Google Fiber team says they are stepping up to get ahead of some of the potential roadblocks. As sign-ups and deadlines approach, they plan to host events – like pizza parties, family fairs, and information/sign-up parties – to help spread awareness about Fiber's offering to low-income residents, including both HACA and non-HACA properties, said Barriere. They've also provided funding to local affordable housing nonprofit Foundation Commun­ities to support its digital inclusion work for residents. And beyond outreach at housing properties, Google is working with organizations like River City Youth Foundation to support digital literacy programming for families in Dove Springs.

In the end, the onus of bridging the digital divide cannot fall on the corporate ISP provider alone, but must be a collaborative effort led by strategic city policy that factors in structural disparities, dedicated nonprofits, and community leaders.

"We still have a long way to go. There's a real need for increased awareness of this issue," said Morrison. "Finally the whole 'tale of two cities' story of Austin is much more on the table than it used to be," she continued, referring to income inequality. "And this is really a key element of it. So as we move forward and have the broader conversation with this new Council about affordability and prosperity and how they touch each of the districts, we need to make sure digital inclusion is part of the conversation."

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