More than 30% of households in some North and Southeast Austin census tracts lack internet access, according to a new mapping tool released by the Biden administration on Thursday. In comparison, 100% of households in the census tract that includes the University of Texas at Austin have internet access.
The new mapping tool uses American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which asks households whether they have a broadband internet subscription.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said the updated map "paints a sobering view of the challenges facing far too many Americans as they try to connect to high-speed broadband and participate in our modern economy" in a press release.
Broadband access & affordability isn't a luxury – it's essential to everyday life.
In his American Jobs Plan, @POTUS has proposed a once-in-a-lifetime investment that would finally connect 100% of the country to reliable & affordable high-speed broadband.https://t.co/Tjwuhpv2rA
— Secretary Gina Raimondo (@SecRaimondo) June 17, 2021
Previous government broadband availability maps relied on industry data that exaggerated access: a company could report serving a census block so long as one household in it was hooked up to the service.
The new mapping tool provides a much clearer picture of where improved broadband access—which allows for video conferencing and streaming—is needed and which communities are most impacted, including those in poverty. It arrives as state Republican officials and the Biden administration are pushing for greater investment in internet infrastructure.
The pandemic highlighted gaps in broadband access as tens of millions of Texans and hundreds of millions of Americans were forced to work, learn and receive healthcare virtually.
Last summer, Austin ISD distributed thousands of tablets and WiFi hotspots to families without internet access, who may have accounted for around 25%—some 20,000—of the district's students. Despite these interventions, the district and many others around the state saw enrollment drop and failure rates spike, raising concerns about equity.
More recently, lack of internet access likely impacted the vaccine rollout, which largely relied on online appointments and glitchy virtual waiting rooms.
Moving forward, such broadband red zones may prove challenging for new development. Del Valle will soon be home to a Tesla Gigafactory, which CEO Elon Musk has promised will bring 10,000 jobs to the area. But nearby census tracts are some of the most starkly disadvantaged in the city when it comes to internet access, according to the mapping tool.
Census tracts bordering the forthcoming Tesla Gigafactory post low rates of internet access compared to the rest of the Austin metro. (Indicators of Broadband Need/National Telecommunications and Information Administration)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott named improved broadband access a key priority of the recent legislative session and signed House Bill 5, which aims to incentivize broadband expansion across the state, especially in rural areas, on Tuesday.
Similarly, President Joe Biden has made broadband expansion a central component of his sweeping $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Last month, he agreed to a compromise with Republicans, cutting the broadband proposal to $65 million from $100 million, but the overall plan remains a source of debate.
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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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