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Parts of North and Southeast Austin left without internet access at crucial time

A new federal mapping tool provides a much clearer picture of which communities lack internet access across the country. (Indicators of Broadband Need/National Telecommunications and Information Administration)

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.

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.

Policy repercussions

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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