Study: Austin more wired than most, but some sectors lag

A new report appears to back up assertions that Austin is indeed a “wired” city.

University of Texas researchers found that 92 percent of Austin homes have an Internet connection – well above the national average of 70 percent.

Still, there are some areas for concern, according to the study. Researchers discovered that African Americans, for example, are less likely to have home Internet connections than Austinites of other races.

The report was commissioned by the city of Austin’s Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs, which hopes to use the findings to shape efforts to help get more people access to the Web.

“They’re very keen to learn from this, to help their own digital inclusion efforts,” said Sharon Strover, the report’s lead author and a professor in UT’s Department of Radio-Television-Film. “Access is still an issue in some areas. They want to make sure people who want to go online can get online.”

For people who don’t have access to the Internet at home, other options include work or school, as well as places such as public libraries, Strover said.

“This study will help guide city of Austin decisions and help those involved in digital inclusion better target their efforts and design better services,” said John Speirs, who oversees digital inclusion efforts in the Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs.

The African American population is generally “less connected,” researchers found, with Internet access in 80 percent of homes. That compares to 91.9 percent for Hispanics and 94.5 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

African Americans were also less likely to use the Internet, whether at home or elsewhere, coming in at 81 percent versus 88 percent for Hispanics and 96 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

In addition to race, the study, which was conducted last summer, also examined Internet access and usage based on gender, education, age and where respondents live.

It found that there are more than 50,000 Austinites who don’t use the Internet. Those “non-users” were most likely to live in South Austin.

Nearly two-thirds of non-users – 61 percent – listed cost as one of the reasons they don’t use the Internet. Other factors commonly cited were safety and privacy concerns and that they were “simply not interested in using the Internet.”

“Non-users tend to be older, less well-educated and more female,” researchers found.

“We hope this data will be able to help the city better target their efforts,” Strover said.

Even before the UT survey results were tabulated, a number of efforts were already under way to bridge the city’s digital divide. One of the highest-profile initiatives has been from Google, which in the process of deploying its super-fast 1-gigabit Internet service in parts of South and Southeast Austin. Google plans to make Fiber available in other parts of the city in the coming years.

Google has partnered with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, for instance, to offer basic Internet service at no cost to residents, said Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, Google’s community impact manager for Austin.

Through another program, Community Connections, Google will offer 1-gigabit Internet for free at about 100 sites throughout Austin, such as public libraries and high schools.

“Google thinks the Internet is a better place when everyone in the community is a part of it,” Fatehi-Weeks said.

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