This past weekend, a veritable list of who’s who in the broadband access and digital inclusion world convened at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. Policy-makers, professors, graduate students, representatives from Austin Free-Net, Technology For All, El Paso BTOP Project, and Connected Texas mingled with members of the American Libraries Association, City of Austin, Federal Communications Commission and a presidential adviser from the National Telecommunications and Information Association.
This group of thought leaders came to Austin to openly discuss the growing issue of Digital Inclusion in Texas and the nation. Topics ranged from the objectives and operation of the government-issued Broadband Technology Opportunities Grant and its impact on Texas to the need for statewide collaboration and the future of public Internet access were presented — and at some points debated.
The two-day event proved to be lively and thought provoking and gave Austin Free-Net and our partner in the Texas Connects Coalition Project, Houston-based Technology For All and opportunity to share our challenges and successes thus far.
“I was honored and a bit nervous to be presenting in front of a room of economists and intellectuals. I loved every minute of it. Being able to speak to the group about the curriculum model Austin Free-Net is employing for our clients and the value it holds to our resounding success was empowering,” said Juanita Budd, executive director of Austin Free-Net. “I was full of pride for our coalition’s success and overwhelmed by the warm reception our work received.”
A common theme among the conference was the importance of Public Computer Centers (PCCs) as well as city, state and national libraries. They hold strong in the ongoing fight for digital inclusion. They are now, as they have always been, the knowledge centers of our society. Austin Free-Net and the City of Austin have long been aware of the importance of the library system to the city’s vulnerable populations. Together, in 1995, we created the national model for public and private partnership to put computers with Internet access into the City of Austin’s public libraries. Those systems are self-guided and self-sustaining, now. Austin Free-Net continued to grow its PCCs to allow for greater access.
Along with access to the technology, there has to be the education of how to use it. Eighteen University of Texas Digital Inclusion Graduate Students have spent the last nine months studying multiple PCCs within the Texas Connects Coalition. During the conference, they presented their findings.
These up-and-coming students presented their contentious observations and results. They interviewed clients and Trainers as well as researched anonymous browser history. Their conclusions mirrored what the professionals who work in the field know: People are falling behind the digital learning curve as our national dependency upon technology continues to grow.
Said Budd, “It was awe-inspiring to hear these young people speak. These students who have grown up with technology as an everyday utility – much like indoor plumbing – were so clearly able to see and to define the digital divide not only as an issue in Austin, but as a global one.”
The conclusion of the conference was a touch somber as it heralded the end not only of the joining of hearts and minds, but of the Broadband Opportunities Grant upon which so many of the attendees, including Austin Free-Net, financially depend.
The lessons learned from these frank discussions with the policy makers, graduate students, panelists and attendees was that the work done by all serves one purpose: to give someone a chance to learn how to use the technology that may help them become educated, social, employable and active participants in the destiny of their lives.