"The have-less" : Austin public computing centers after the BTOP
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In 2009, the U.S. government launched the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) as part of a larger effort to jumpstart the economy following the 2008 financial crash. Part of the program's substantial budget was invested in public computing centers (PCCs) in an effort to expand broadband access and provide computer training, particularly to underserved communities. Like many other PCCs, Austin Free-Net, a nonprofit committed to fighting the digital divide and one of the BTOP recipients, used the funds towards substantial expansion of its services by establishing new labs, adding computers to existing ones, and providing a host of training classes. In 2013, the BTOP funding ended, raising the question of the sustainability of the expansion it fostered. This study examines a subset of Austin-based PCCs, established or operated by Austin Free-Net, following the BTOP, in order to contribute to a broader understanding of policy opportunities and limitations towards PCCs in addressing the digital divide. Its approach is two-fold. First, it attempts to shed light on the PCCs’ role in this effort, by examining how the services they offer promote digital inclusion and what challenges the staff face in carrying out this mission. Second, it examines the impact of the end of BTOP funding on the sample PCCs, particularly on organizational components crucial to their ability to continue to provide their services. This analysis addresses challenges related to both the BTOP's end as well as internal operations. The findings reveal that PCCs are fundamentally limited in what they can achieve to bridge the digital divide, although this does not negate the important, and often necessary role they play, particularly for underserved communities. Moreover, while the substantial BTOP funding fostered expansion of access and training, its end posed significant sustainability problems for the PCCs. The presence of certain environmental factors, including financial support from and goal alignment with the City of Austin and other funding entities, buffered Austin Free-Net against some of this impact, raising the question of the fate of PCCs without such support. The analysis culminates in a discussion of the findings and their broader policy implications.