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

 
 

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

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