Sep 15, 2023 - News

North Texas' digital divide affects thousands of residents

Dallas chief information officer Bill Zielinski and Axios Dallas reporter Naheed Rajwani-Dharsi at yesterday's "Building Connections Across the Divide" event. Photo: Jacque Manaugh/Axios

Large swaths of Dallas County lack internet access, but a variety of public groups are working to change that.

Why it matters: Dallas has a sordid history of disinvestment that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic residents, especially in the southern half of the county.

The big picture: Areas that lack internet access also tend to be infrastructure deserts, Bill Zielinski, the City of Dallas' chief information officer, told Axios during an event Thursday about the issue. The gap in the digital divide also leads to gaps in outcomes in health and life expectancy.

Flashback: An SMU study published last year identified 62 Dallas neighborhoods as infrastructure deserts — low-income areas without access to services including public transportation, hospitals and food that create a safe, functional and economically viable area.

What's happening: Dallas has worked to identify the communities that need the assistance, provide them with devices for digital access, and help in signing up for service, Zielinski says.

  • The city has also invested in free Wi-Fi at parks and recreation centers to expand access.

Yes, but: "Over time, we all need to look for solutions that don't just provide a Band-Aid on the front end of this," Zielinski says.

Details: An estimated 76,000 low-income households in the county qualify for but aren't subscribed to low-cost internet.

  • About a quarter of Dallas County households earning less than $50,000 don't own a computer, per a county analysis.

By the numbers: U.S. Census data from 2020 showed that 42% of Dallas households lacked fixed internet access. Dallas had the worst household connection rate among major Texas cities and was the sixth worst city in the country, per KERA.

  • When Dallas schools switched to virtual learning during the early stages of the pandemic, DISD learned that more than one-third of Dallas families lacked internet access.

What's next: County leaders will select a company to build a fiber network between county buildings and housing sites that could bring high-speed internet to unserved communities.

  • The county has $35 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for the project.

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