Austin is no stranger to the spotlight, and on Thursday, November 20, it was announced that the city would play host to an inaugural program that could forever change the cultural fabric of Austin — and possibly the country.
On the steps of the Booker T. Washington Terrace in East Austin, one of the 18 public housing communities under the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, Google Fiber execs and civic leaders joined the newly minted U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro to unveil a new program called "Unlocking the Connection."
The program is designed to help bridge the digital divide that exists between those who can afford access to the Internet and those who cannot.
The program is designed to help bridge the digital divide that exists between those who can afford access to the Internet and those who cannot. For the 4,300 Austinites who live in public housing, Google will waive the $300 construction fee and offer free access to Fiber's Basic Internet Service for at least 10 years.
But that's only part of the three-prong approach. In addition to Internet connections, the program offers digital literacy programs and STEM training for all ages as well as access to digital devices.
"Brainpower is the new currency of success," said Castro during the event. The secretary also noted the "game-changing resources" that a program like Unlocking the Connection provides for Austin's most underserved community. Castro, who left his position as mayor of San Antonio in July to lead HUD, said launching a technology and socially minded program like this in Austin just makes sense. "What you’re doing here in Austin is a national model for what [should] happen in the United States," he said.
This was a sentiment echoed by HACA President Michael Gerber who noted that access to the Internet means everything from viewing job postings and creating resumes to taking online courses and even figuring out public transportation options to get to school and work. "Access to technology can directly translate into workforce development, education, social inclusion, health and civic engagement opportunities for our residents," Gerber said in a press release.
Like all of Google's "Fiberhoods" HACA residents must sign up for the service. In order to educate the community about the opportunity, Google has been handing out flyers and meeting with residents to walk them through the sign-up process. "We have every reason to believe people are going to sign up," said Google Fiber Community Impact Manager Parisa Fatehi-Weeks.
And if yesterday's reaction was any indication, Fatehi-Weeks is right. For the hundreds who attended the launch, many of whom were public housing residents, this program is the chance to break the cycle of poverty. For HACA resident Rachel Martinez, access to computer classes at the Booker T. Washington community center was not only a career changer — it was a life changer.
"How many eyes have we opened [with technology]?" she asked the crowd during her stirring closing remarks. "We deserve the best that everyone else has."