Travis County seeks to expand internet access with St. David’s Foundation grant

Officials with Travis County and St. David’s Foundation are partnering to bridge the digital divide between the internet and Travis County families.

“Together, we will ensure that internet access is equitable for everyone in our community,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said.

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously during its meeting to receive the $150,000 grant from St. David’s Foundation, paired with $80,000 previously provided by the city of Austin, to help improve equity in internet access throughout Travis County.

The grant will go toward research on where gaps exist for broadband access in the county. Staff in the office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs will practice door-to-door canvassing and conduct community surveys to better understand where the needs are for broadband access, said Chloe Mun, program manager for technology and operations.

Mun said the gaps are likely a combination of a lack of affordable Wi-Fi, devices and education on how to use those devices.

Khotan Harmon, senior program manager for telecommunications and regulatory affairs with the city of Austin, said she has heard stories about children going to restaurants for Wi-Fi and the elderly unable to access telehealth.

In 2020, a little more than 45,000 homes in Travis County did not have internet access, and about 17,000 Travis County students did not have computers or access to the internet, Brown said during a press conference on Oct. 25.

“We have to make sure everybody has access [to the internet],” Precinct Three Commissioner Ann Howard said. “I’m grateful that Travis County is leading and collaborating with the city and with St. David’s to make this happen.”

Precinct One Commissioner Jeff Travillion said people get their information from their cellphones rather than the “6 o’clock news on television,” so there has to be access to the internet for everyone.

“With partnerships and grants like this, we can begin to fulfill the communities,” Travillion said. “This is a really good first step, but we’ve got a lot more steps to take together and a lot more dots to connect.”

Travillion said he wants to make sure all students growing up in Travis County can one day work for big companies such as Apple, Google, Tesla and Samsung, “because we provided the resources necessary for them to learn.”

Abena Asante, senior program officer for St. David’s Foundation, said she is excited about the partnership.

“St. David’s Foundation has a mission for making an inclusive place where everybody can flourish and reach their full potential,” Asante said. “We recognize that access, affordability and use of broadband is a necessity, not a luxury.”

Broadband, she said, is no less important than the electricity that powers homes.

“It is said that [the internet] is a third utility, next to electricity and water,” Asante said.

Asante said there are “far too many marginalized and historically excluded communities” in parts of Travis County that lack access to broadband. She said they remain “what we call unserved and underserved.” She said these people remain digitally excluded.

“The addressing of this issue is now,” Asante said. “There’s much work to be done to ensure full digital access and inclusion.”

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