Even before a global pandemic hit, access to high speed broadband internet in my home helped our household run. Paying bills, doing work, researching schools and employment opportunities, and connecting with family and friends all happen as a result of high-speed internet. Under the current circumstances, I honestly could not imagine my life without it.
From the online resources that help my preschooler learn, to the cartoons she watches when I need to take a call, to the episodes of “Cheer” I watch for a pick-me-up, it’s safe to say that her education, my career, and our family’s well-being would be substantially disrupted without reliable, high-speed internet access.
For me, many of my friends and colleagues, and likely you reading this, to be without an internet connection at home is simply unfathomable. Yet for nearly half our city’s residents, it’s an everyday reality, primarily due to its cost within a constrained budget and/or the lack of sufficient credit to purchase it (our broadband infrastructure is largely already in place).
According to 2016 census data (analyzed by Jordana Barton at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank) 42% of Dallas households lack fixed internet access. That gives Dallas the worst household connection rate among major Texas cities, and the sixth worst in the country.
Even under “normal” conditions, this situation has serious implications for the educational and economic health of our region. Consider the fact that 70% of job openings are posted online, with a similar percentage of those jobs requiring “medium to high digital skills.” And, according to surveys conducted prior to the pandemic, nearly 60% eighth graders used the internet to do homework every or nearly every day.
Now, as a result of the pandemic, 100% of the more than 500,000 Dallas area students, both in K-12 and higher education, need the internet to fully take part in the remote learning their dedicated teachers and professors continue to provide. But sadly, we know not all students have that ability. And that burden disproportionately falls on our children living in poverty. My organization, the Commit Partnership, is supporting area districts and higher education institutions in a number of ways, and internet access has repeatedly risen to the top as an area of biggest concern.
And unfortunately, they have reason to be worried. By digging even deeper into that census data, we’ve found that roughly one-in-four households with children in Dallas County are not subscribed to broadband internet. Nearly half of these households are in just ten zip codes, reflecting childhood poverty rates twice the County average, with this subset also representing the concurrent crises of economic immobility, over-incarceration, and poor health outcomes. For communities reflecting concentrated poverty, it cannot be ignored that growing up there as a child represents an ever increasing mountain of barriers that significantly hinder their ability to succeed.
While this data is dispiriting, it can and should be a call to action and guide us toward innovative, targeted solutions that eliminate this critical inequity which affects so many areas from online learning to job training/seeking to tele-health. The Dallas Federal Reserve Bank has provided a roadmap for local financial institutions to access federal funds by investing in community programs that increase broadband access, computer access, training, and technical assistance. These programs can, in turn, be directed toward the neighborhoods that need them most.
What’s more, examples of innovation are growing in the state of Texas. Superintendents in the Castleberry and Lockhart school districts have purchased transmission towers. BBVA Compass has begun providing free broadband to low-income residents of the city of Pharr in the Rio Grande Valley. And the city of Mont Belvieu near Galveston is doing something previously believed to be impossible: providing municipal WiFi.
“Our residents felt that modern day internet was a critical utility just like water and sewer,” said Mont Belvieu City Manager Nathan Watkins. “And the Judge [Randy McDonald-R, 344th District Court of Texas] ruled in our favor and said, yes, it's critical infrastructure, just like water and sewer, and everybody should have access to it.”
That may or may not be the way forward for Dallas County. But Watkins’ sentiment rings true across rural, suburban and urban Texas: for participation in the 21st century economy, reliable, high-speed internet access is a “critical utility,” and strategies for its provision should be led by the communities who rely upon it.
Dallas ISD superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa has publicly highlighted this issue as a regional, state and national priority, and Chief Technology Officers from school districts and higher education institutions across North Texas (co-led by Dallas ISD CTO Jack Kelanic and myself) will be coming together to work with others to identify county-wide solutions. It is our hope that this work can eventually extend across the public and private sector. [If you represent the technology office of a public, nonprofit, or telecom institution and would like to take part, please email me.]
With the talent, expertise and commitment to equity that currently exists in our region, I am confident we will develop solutions to best serve our students. If we fail, it is nothing less than our region’s future that is at risk.
By Dottie Smith, President, The Commit Partnership