Collaborating to Connect

04/08/2015 10:58 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

The term "digital divide" was used in the United States as early as 1995, long before YouTube or Twitter, before the rise of Khan Academy or online job applications. Twenty years later, the digital divide still exists, and it has never been more costly. Our jobs, economy and education systems have evolved to be almost exclusively accessible on digital platforms. At the same time, broadband adoption rates have flatlined, leaving 25 percent of U.S. households, or approximately 60 million Americans, without an Internet subscription. It should not come as a surprise that our most marginalized populations, like low-income African-Americans and Latinos, make up a large part of the digital divide.

If we are to include all Americans in our digital future, we need bold action and collaborative leadership. We need to understand what works, and what we can learn and apply in more places across the country.

Austin, Texas offers a promising model for how cities can accelerate sustainable broadband adoption. A leader among municipalities working on digital inclusion, the City of Austin believes access to affordable, high-speed Internet for every citizen is critical to economic and workforce development. They have funded and overseen the Grants for Technology Opportunities Program (GTOP) for 17 years, investing in local nonprofits that provide underserved Austinites with access to technology and training on how to use these new resources. The city recently bolstered its efforts by hiring dedicated digital inclusion staff.

Austin has fostered an environment of collaboration that has brought together local nonprofit, corporate and governmental partners to reach unconnected families. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), recognized as one of the country's high-performing public housing providers, has emerged as a digital inclusion leader with a strong vision for connecting residents.

Last November, Austin Pathways, HACA's nonprofit that runs many of their education and self-sufficiency programs, helped launch "Unlocking the Connection," an initiative designed to provide its 4,300 housing residents with computers and Internet connections, as well as digital literacy training, conducted by one of their local nonprofit training partners, Austin Free-Net. "Unlocking the Connection" offers a unique and compelling example of a digital inclusion program with tremendous potential.

Manchaca Village, a small public housing development in the southwest part of Austin, is the first property being served by Unlocking the Connection. This pilot project has resulted in nearly universal interest from residents -- almost every single resident signed up for free basic home Internet from Google Fiber, which is providing a connection to residents at no cost. Manchaca Village's computer classes are full, and Austin Free-Net recently held its first graduation ceremony for its "Tech Starters" series of digital literacy courses. Each graduate received a free refurbished computer, thanks to a donation from Austin Community College (ACC).

The way Manchaca Village beat the odds isn't new or secret. Similar to successful work on social issues such as health inequity or the education achievement gap, their achievements are the result of commitment from and collaboration among all sectors of society -- public, private and nonprofit. The solution addresses all barriers to adoption: digital skill-building, awareness of the Internet's importance, and affordable devices and access.

EveryoneOn has joined HACA, Austin Pathways and Austin Free-Net in its broadband adoption efforts in Austin. We are working closely with HACA to demonstrate the value of home Internet connections at tech ferias, or tech fairs, on HACA properties.

In addition to providing free connections to people in HACA properties, Google Fiber has become a partner more broadly in Austin's digital inclusion efforts. Not only does Google Fiber offer one of the most affordable ways to get online, but its local community impact team also builds strong partnerships with community-based organizations in each of the cities it serves, identifying and investing in projects that can be amplified with more resources. This philosophy brought Google Fiber to work closely with HACA, Austin Free-Net, and ACC.

By leveraging the specific expertise and reach of each partner, Unlocking the Connection overcomes key barriers to adoption. HACA prioritized necessary infrastructure for broadband adoption and Google Fiber made strategic financial investments, lowering the cost barrier to broadband adoption. Austin Free-Net provides the training needed to promote meaningful use of the new Internet connections. And ACC contributed the refurbished devices that residents will need to get online.

No one can bridge the digital divide alone. But if we work together there's real potential for impact. If we don't act, we risk losing another generation of our nation's best assets and competitive advantage. We must commit to working together and making the Internet accessible and affordable to everyone right now.