Austin, Texas: A Model for Cities Working to Narrow the Broadband Gap?

The city’s Office of Digital Inclusion aims to give all residents access to digital and communications technology, and make sure they understand technology and its relevancy to their daily lives.

by / July 7, 2016

In Austin, Texas, population 885,000, some 55,000 residents say they don't use the Internet — at all. But the City Council refuses to accept this.

“It is critical that every one of our residents has access to digital and communications technology, and understands technology and its relevancy to their daily lives, whether for helping with their kids’ homework, or looking for jobs, getting access to health information or accessing online government information,” the council writes.

And the city’s Office of Digital Inclusion is charged with making that vision a reality by working with a range of private-sector and nonprofit providers to ensure connectivity and encourage Internet use.

Serious effort

Austin’s effort has drawn kudos as a model of how municipalities can help to narrow the broadband gap, recently winning a Digital Inclusion Leadership Award from the National League of Cities.

“To have a city office dedicated to this, that is a pretty strong indication of the seriousness that they are giving to it,” said Colin Rhinesmith, author of Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives and a senior lecturer at Boston's Simmons College.

As director of the digital inclusion office, John Speirs describes broadband inclusivity as being foremost a conversation, an effort to spark awareness that starts among the leaders of the city’s 47 departments and hundreds of programs.

“We need to speak the same language in order to move forward around these goals,” he said. “We want digital inclusion to be a core consideration in every conversation the community has.”

The city’s drive toward digital inclusion began when the City Council adopted a resolution calling for the development of a digital inclusion strategic plan that would map out access and adoption strategies. Planners pulled together insights from the nonprofit sector, education, public health, business and other key areas, eventually crafting a document that laid out broad strategies and specific initiatives to be undertaken.

Led by a steering committee appointed by the City Council, planners met five times to get stakeholder input and craft the final document. It took just six months to develop the plan — lightning speed by most municipal standards.

The process went so smoothly, Spiers said, because the City Council was clear in its goals of awareness and adoption. “There was a clear directive from the very beginning: Here is what you are going to do,” he said.

‘A first step’

Recognizing that lower-income households typically have had less access to high-speed connectivity, one of the city's hallmark projects has sought to redress some of those economic disparities underlying the broadband gap. The Unlocking the Connection project has brought free basic Internet access to 1,838 residential public housing units through a partnership with Google Fiber.

“We all want people to find better jobs, to eventually own a place, to break out of a possible social silo," Speirs said. "Internet access is a first step toward that."

This public housing effort exemplifies Austin’s creative approach to broadband. Beyond simply laying the fiber, “they also looked to find the champions in public housing who would train others [on Internet use]," Rhinesmith said. "So there is not just the connectivity, but also a real sense of community that comes with that."

Training is a big part of Speirs’ agenda. Backed by the city’s Grant for Technology Opportunities Program, the digital inclusion office funds training programs through a range of local organizations, with an eye toward fostering digital inclusion in underserved and underconnected communities.

The office also is charged with maintaining a baseline understanding of the state of local residents’ Internet adoption, through a survey to be conducted once every three years. By taking a deep dive into the availability of broadband, factoring in such diverse factors as ethnicity, geography and income, “it really helps us to zoom in on those places where we can provide the necessary skills, access and training,” Speirs said.

Those findings have encouraged the broadband office to devote special attention to issues of language, as one-in-four non-Internet users say they do not speak English well enough to go online. With this in mind, the broadband strategic plan calls for all libraries to make available bilingual trainers who can work with parents and children. A major nonprofit partner in the broadband effort, Austin Free-Net, makes those trainers available.

While Spanish language outreach is a primary focus, the broadband effort also is increasingly developing resources for those who speak Middle Eastern languages, including identifying bilingual trainers with proficiency in those languages. This population represents a growing piece of the local demographic, and planners seek to ensure broadband inclusivity touches that group.

“We need to make sure we have the availability and the support for that," Speirs said, "because we know the need is there and we know it is going to grow."

Focusing on outcomes

While the broadband effort aims to make high-speed Internet available, and also seeks to train potential users in how to make the best use of their online experience, the office now is moving to take the program one step further. Specifically, Speirs and his team are looking for ways to demonstrate the actual economic and personal impact of newfound broadband accessibility.

The team is looking at data on quality of service. They are charting the price of Internet service, analyzing resident satisfaction data, testing end users for their technological skills — all in an effort to understand whether broadband access is having the desired result of helping to improve peoples’ social station.

“My core charge is to ensure we are a livable city. So we want to understand how our work impacts the residents, how it impacts their livability,” Speirs said. “This effort speaks to the relevancy component and it speaks to the value of the work. This will help us to demonstrate why the city of Austin should even be invested in these programs.”

This focus on outcomes helps distinguish Austin from other municipalities, in that it takes broadband adoption beyond the mere question of fiber availability. “They are thinking about the social and economic benefits," Rhinesmith said, "talking about this as a means of social change at a very basic level."

Austin’s inclusion efforts are guided by an unusually detailed strategic plan. For example, the guiding document declares the city needs “a more consistent and engaging physical presence to fully communicate the importance of having everyone connected.” The inclusion office therefore is instructed to regularly take part in community events. 

Likewise, the strategic plan calls for a multifaceted marketing campaign, with specific messaging tailored to different sectors. It also spells out an imperative to engage the local volunteer community.

If this digital-inclusion plan has seen some solid wins, it may be in part because the city got a jump on broadband issues early on: The city established the office in 1995.

The office has scored some solid wins since then. In 2013, Google Fiber helped put in place “Community Connections,” a program targeting 100 sites for free public broadband access. Google supplied the network while the city made the necessary hardware available not just in schools and libraries, but at museums, theaters, workforce development centers, social service offices and a range of other locations.

In casting such a wide net, that early effort set the tone for how the city would go on to approach broadband inclusivity.

"We believe that every resident should have the opportunity to be fully engaged in the digital society," Speirs said, "and that means the plan needs to connect all of our community partners."

The strategic plan clearly indicates an intention to spread the word of digital inclusion to as many corners of the community as possible. This, in turn, has become Speirs’ guiding principle.

"We all need to make technology more of a forefront consideration, whenever we are having conversations with the community and also with others in government," he said.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.