Thousands of students across the state are getting free internet thanks to Comcast. Photo courtesy of Comcast

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the digital divide when it came to online learning, but one tech company is hoping the bridge the gap in Texas.

Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center have partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

"Quality internet connectivity at home is critical for academic success, and we are proud to partner with Region 4 ESC to help reduce learning gaps and provide increased opportunities for students to have in-home access to the internet," says Ralph Martinez, regional senior vice president of Comcast Houston, in a news release.

Comcast's digital equity initiative provides internet access for as low as $9.95 a month, and over the past decade it has helped connect almost 1 million low-income Texans to broadband Internet at home — most for the very first time.

Houston-based Region 4 ESC is the agency leading the initiative. The TEA Connect Texas Program has a goal of connecting up to 60,000 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade through internet access and devices

"Providing stable high-quality internet to the students of Texas at home is a critical component of any long-term solution for closing the digital divide for our state," shared Gaby Rowe, Project Lead, Operation Connectivity. "The TEA Connect Texas program is designed to empower school districts and parents to do just that."

More information online on the TEA Connect Texas Program's website.

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. Last December, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

Comcast is looking out for the one-third of businesses in the Houston metro area that are minority-owned. Photo courtesy of comcast.

Tech company to grant funds to Houston-area BIPOC small business owners

comcast cares

Comcast, the telecom, media, and entertainment conglomerate, is awarding $1 million in grants to small businesses in Houston owned by entrepreneurs who are Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC).

In all, 100 grants of $10,000 each will be given to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Local businesses can apply for the grants March 1-14. Grant recipients will be announced in April and awarded in May.

"Unfortunately, many small businesses in Houston were not able to withstand the many months of suppressed revenues [amid the pandemic]. While we remain optimistic about our economic recovery, public-private partnerships will play a vital role in minimizing the disruptions that so many small businesses, specifically minority-owned businesses, are facing," says Vice Mayor Pro Tem Martha Castex-Tatum, who chairs the Houston City Council's Economic Development Committee.

The Houston grants are part of a $5 million investment fund sponsored by Comcast RISE, which launched last year to provide resources to BIPOC-owned small businesses around the country. Under this initiative, grants also will be awarded in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

Studies show BIPOC-owned small businesses have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, and recent research by JPMorgan Chase Institute found that Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Philadelphia were among the top markets for sharp declines in local spending. Additionally, the majority of applications for the marketing and technology services component of Comcast RISE are from these five cities.

To qualify for a Comcast RISE grant in Houston, a BIPOC-owned small business:

  • Must be located in either Harris County or Fort Bend County.
  • Must have been in business for at least three years.
  • Must employ no more than 25 people.

To drive outreach about the program and provide support, training, and mentorship, Comcast also has awarded more than $2 million to six Houston business groups: Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston Black Chamber, Asian Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston East End Chamber, and Cámara de Empresarios Latinos de Houston.

"Small businesses have always played an integral role in Houston's growth and future," Ralph Martinez, senior vice president for Comcast's Houston region, says in a February 9 release. "In the midst of the pandemic, these entrepreneurs provided many of the services and resources that have kept our communities up and running."

About one-third of businesses in the Houston metro area are minority-owned. Among largest metros in the U.S., Houston ranks fifth for the percentage of minority-owned startups (30.45 percent).

Comcast RISE is part of a broader $100 million diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative that launched last summer. In June, Comcast NBCUniversal announced a multiyear plan to allocate $75 million in cash and $25 million worth of media over the next three years to fight injustice and inequality against any race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability.

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Comcast donates tech, funds to support diversity-focused nonprofit

gift of tech

A Houston organization focused on helping low-income communities by providing access to education, training, and employment has received a new donation.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. The gift is part of a new partnership with SERJobs that's aimed at educating and equipping adults with technical skills, including training on Microsoft Office and professional development.

“SERJobs is excited to celebrate 10 years of Comcast's Internet Essentials program,” says Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO, SERJobs, in a news release. “The Workforce Development Rally highlights the importance of digital literacy in our increasingly virtual world—especially as technology and the needs of our economy evolve. We are grateful to Comcast for their ongoing partnership and support of SERJobs’ and our members.”

For 10 years Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 10 million people to the Internet at home — most for the first time. This particular donation is a part of Project UP, Comcast’s comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity.

“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across Houston,” says Toni Beck, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Houston, in the release.

“Together, we have connected hundreds of thousands of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides," she continues. "Our work is not done, and we are excited to partner with SERJobs to ensure the next generation of leaders in Houston are equipped with the technical training they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. This summer, Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

Additionally, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston last December, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

President Joe Biden appoints Houston green space guru to lofty national post

new gig

Aprominent and nationally acclaimed Houston parks presence has just received a hefty national appointment. President Joe Biden has named Beth White, Houston Parks Board president and CEO, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the organization announced.

The NCPC, established by Congress in 1924, is the federal government’s central planning agency for the National Capital Region. The commission provides overall guidance related to federal land and buildings in the region. Functions include reviewing the design of federal and local projects, overseeing long-range planning for future development, and monitoring capital investment by federal agencies.

Fittingly, White was initially appointed to NCPC as the at-large presidential commissioner in January 2012, per a press release. She was reappointed for another six-year term in 2016. Most recently, White served as the commission’s vice-chair.

“I’m honored to chair the National Capital Planning Commission and work with my fellow commissioners to build and sustain a livable, resilient capital region and advance the Biden Administration’s critical priorities around sustainability, equity, and innovation,” White said in a statement.

Before joining Houston Parks Board in 2016, White served as the director of the Chicago Region Office of The Trust for Public Land, where she spearheaded development of The 606 public park and was instrumental in establishing Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge.

Renowned in the Windy City, she also was managing director of communications and policy for the Chicago Housing Authority; chief of staff for the Chicago Transit Authority’s Chicago Transit Board; and assistant commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. She was the founding executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for Urban Land Institute Houston.

The graduate of Northwestern and Loyola universities most recently received the Houston Business Journal’s 2021 Most Admired CEO award, per her bio.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.