tech support

City offers internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians amid pandemic

The city of Houston has implemented a new free internet program in collaboration with Comcast. Photo via Getty Images

It's an increasingly digital world, and COVID-19 has just accelerated that trend exponentially. Yet, there are still tons of Houstonians operating offline due to socioeconomic inequities.

The Houston City Council recently approved a $624,960 program with funding from the CARES Act to help bridge this gap. The program, by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force in partnership with Comcast, will provide 5,000 internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians. Applications for the vouchers are open from now until December 20, 2020, and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. They will provide internet for one calendar year.

"This pandemic has highlighted the importance of quality internet service particularly for those vulnerable populations who must stay at home to stay safe," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "This program will provide a lifeline for citizens that have struggled through the pandemic without internet access and a way to stay informed, connected and safe during these challenging times."

To be eligible for the voucher, applicants must live in the city of Houston and have a Comcast serviceable address, as well as meet two personal sets of criteria. First, they must prove that their total household income before February 2020 was lower than 80 percent of the area median income, and second, they must either be over age 65, a person with disabilities, households with children less than five years of age, or a person between 16-24 who is not currently enrolled in school or participating in the workforce.

"During this unprecedented time, it is vital for Houstonians to stay connected to the Internet — for education, work, and personal health reasons," says Comcast's Melinda Little, director of Government Affairs in the Houston Region, in the news release. "We're proud to partner with the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response Task Force to help keep Houstonians connected through our Internet Essentials Program."

While there are existing internet access programs, this program, which is complementary to the city's Computer Access Program, is specifically targeting critical groups that have been overlooked.

"The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19," says Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in the release. "Thanks to Mayor Turner's commitment to equity and accessibility and the City Council's support, this program will breakdown that barrier by providing in-home internet access for qualifying Houstonians with disabilities, enhancing their independence and self-determination."

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Building Houston

 
 

2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

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