This is part one in a two part series co-authored by David Edmonson, Executive Director of Austin Tech Alliance, and Robert Friedman, Executive Director of Permanent Legacy Foundation and formerly with Mozilla. Find part two here.

Austin is well known as a tech hub. Recognitions include the best city in the world for tech, the top city for startups, and the number three city creating the most tech jobs.

But not all residents feel the benefit of Austin’s growing innovation economy. Factors like high cost, unreliable connections, and language barriers limit parts of our offline community from being able to connect online.

In our emerging digital society, it is critical that every city resident has equal access to the internet, whether it be for doing homework, finding a job, or accessing online health and government information.

Fortunately, the City of Austin and numerous nonprofit and private sector partners have been working to make this vision a reality. In fact, the City’s efforts to narrow the broadband gap won a Digital Inclusion Leadership Award from the National League of Cities.

Through connecting nonprofit providers with the private sector, the city is sparking a conversation about how to overcome barriers to digital equity and inclusivity — but there is still a need for additional time, talent, and treasure to close the digital inclusion gap.

What is Digital Inclusion?

Digital inclusion, or digital equity, is the ability of groups and individuals to access and use information via digital technology. It is comprised of three components:

  1. Access to devices
  2. Access to the internet
  3. Digital literacy knowledge

Those who lack ready access to technology, a reliable internet connection, or the technological know-how are deprived of the ability to fully participate in modern society, inhibiting individual opportunity and community progress. The 2014 Austin Digital Assessment, for example, found that just over five percent of residents or more than “50,000 Austinites do not use the internet, which may translate into lost opportunities for education, social and health services, and local participation.”

That’s one in 20 Austinites. If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, then think about 20 people you know. Is any one of them completely disconnected from the internet? What about 40 people, or 100 in your network?

Think about the people on your block or in your neighborhood. What about all of the people in your office building or your apartment building, or your dorm.

If it seems impossible that any of those people are completely disconnected from the internet, then you’ve stumbled upon what we call the digital divide at the heart of digital inequality. For entire swaths of Austin, being disconnected from the internet seems ridiculous — something that can only happen during a natural disaster or blackout.

For one in 20 Austinites, it’s a daily reality.

Among those with access who are connecting online, there are still persistent and pervasive challenges with the quality of that connection for modern web applications. Connecting to the internet through a gaming console is a fundamentally different experience than surfing the web on a desktop computer. Once connected, the the basic digital literacy education needed to succeed online remains a final barrier. After all, it’s not just the bandwidth of your connection that matters, it’s how you use it.

The digital divide leads to lost opportunities for education, social services, and civic participation.

One prime example is the homework gap. In 2009, the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force found that that approximately 70 percent of teachers nationwide assign homework requiring access to broadband and about 65 percent of students used the Internet at home to complete their homework.

And yet, according to the Pew Research Center, about one in five homes with school-aged children does not have access to broadband internet. The effect is to place these students at a significant disadvantage compared to their peers, something that has lifelong consequences for the students and communities across the country.

Next week, we’ll discuss efforts underway to make digital inclusion an Austin community priority and how you can get involved to make a difference.