Casting the internet wide enough for every Austinite
By Joelle DiPaolo, 8:00AM, Sat. Apr. 22, 2023
Broadband, a basic necessity to live and work in Austin, remains out of reach for a critical 5% of Austinites, but a quarter of a million dollars granted to local nonprofit Austin Pathways on March 10 should expand access to thousands of locals.
The organization received the grant as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Your Home, Your Internet pilot program, which seeks to help people understand and enroll in the Federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a discount on broadband services up to $30 monthly plus a one-time discount on a tablet or computer. Catherine Crago, head of strategic initiatives for Austin Pathways, says affordable internet can increase someone’s quality of life greatly. “The cost burden of communication, of being connected [is detrimental] for a whole variety of reasons, not the least of which is emergency response,” Crago says.
Austin Pathways promotes the welfare of those living in subsidized housing operated by the Housing Authority of the City of Austin and those using the Section 8 voucher program, so they’re well-positioned to connect those residents to cheaper internet. And HACA residents can also receive a stipend for working as a digital ambassador helping their neighbors navigate internet access related difficulties. These volunteers work with IT interns from Austin Community College and ACP providers in central Texas. Digital ambassadors “are able to bring a lot to the table before a resident ever clicks on a ACP registration,” Crago says. “They’re there to really do that outreach where we don’t just have information from the FCC.”
The grant will go towards volunteer stipends, full-time staff salaries, and the cost of printed materials and postage. Crago hopes they can reach not only HACA residents, but also qualifying residents in private apartments on Section 8 vouchers. “We want to make sure those folks … across the city that are in these nooks and crannies really know that this is a program that’s available for them,” she says. The FCC estimates that, of the nearly 104,000 households nationwide eligible for discounted internet, only 18% are enrolled. A lack of internet access is considered to be a determinant of health, Crago says, and the pandemic further exacerbated this problem. “The pandemic really drove our understanding of the digital divide, and what it means for people to have digital equity, 10 years forward in a very short time.”
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