closing the digital divide

Comcast gives 50 community centers in the Houston area an upgrade with free Wi-Fi

The Lift Zones in low-income communities will provide free Wi-Fi for three years. Photo via comcast.com

Comcast is giving a technology lift to thousands of people throughout the Houston metro area.

The media and tech giant says it has started 50 WiFi-equipped "Lift Zones" at community centers across the region. These zones enable low-income students and their families to take advantage of free internet service. The centers will enjoy access to free WiFi for three years.

Among the local organizations hosting Lift Zones are BakerRipley, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston, the Tejano Center for Community Centers, the City of Houston, Harris County, and the City of Galveston.

"The COVID-19 crisis put many at risk of being left behind, accelerating the need for comprehensive digital equity and internet adoption programs to support them. We hope these Lift Zones will help those who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to connect to effective distance learning at home," Ralph Martinez, regional senior vice president of Comcast Houston, says in a news release.

In December, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Comcast announced establishment of nine Lift Zones at city-operated community centers. These were the first Life Zones to be installed in the Houston area. The nine locations are:

  • Acres Homes Multi-Service Center.
  • DeZavala Community Center.
  • Emancipation Community Center.
  • Hartman Community Center.
  • Kashmere Multi-Service Center.
  • Magnolia Multi-Service Center.
  • Melrose Community Center.
  • Southwest Multi-Service Center.
  • Third Ward Multi-Service Center.

"The pandemic has underscored the need for students to have internet access to support their education and not fall behind in the classroom. Parents must also have options that work for them," Turner said in a December news release.

At no cost, Comcast outfits each Lift Zone location with a WiFi setup powered by Comcast Business. At each site, users can tap into a combination of Comcast Business' internet, WiFi Pro and SecurityEdge offerings.

Lift Zones complement Comcast's Internet Essentials program, which has helped connect about 10 million low-income Americans to the internet at home, including nearly 1 million Texans.

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly one-fourth of adults with annual household income below $30,000 don't own a smartphone, while about four in 10 lack home broadband services or a desktop or laptop computer. In March, President Biden signed legislation providing more than $3 billion in subsidies to boost broadband access in low-income areas.

Comcast recently unveiled a $1 billion, 10-year commitment to support digital equity, including the Lift Zones initiative. The initiative, introduced in September, aims to establish WiFi-connected safe spaces at more than 1,000 community centers nationwide for students and adults by the end of 2021.

"For nearly a decade, Internet Essentials has helped to change the lives of millions of people by providing low-income families with internet access at home," Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable, said in a September news release. "These Lift Zones, which will be installed in community centers in local neighborhoods that our partners have identified and will run, will be places where students and families can get online and access the resources they need, especially while so many schools and workplaces have gone virtual."

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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