Texas addresses digital divide, moves to improve broadband access

Definition of broadband under scrutiny

By Tim Brown

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Since the early days of the internet, political leaders have been concerned about the digital divide — the disadvantages suffered by those without access to the worldwide network of computers and the information found on it. The first 56K dial-up modems didn’t hit store shelves until February 1997, and by 1999, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that urban residents were 25% more likely to have internet access than those in rural areas.

This year, one of the highlights from the regular Texas legislative session was the passage of House Bill 5, by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), creating the Broadband Development Office (BDO) under the Office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. HB 5 requires the BDO to create and maintain a broadband development map, classifying whether or not 80% of addresses in areas have access to broadband service, and whether the federal funding has been provided to support deployment of broadband services in those areas.

The bill sets the minimum standard to qualify as broadband service at download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps — commonly shown as 25/3 Mbps. This is the same standard adopted in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which collects service data from internet service providers.

The FCC, using data provided by those companies, reports the percentage of the population of each county that has fixed — not cellphone internet — access to broadband, based on its standard of 25/3 Mbps or better service.

According to the FCC data, as seen in Map 1, the counties in north-central Texas have largely achieved the agency’s broadband goals. So too have other counties extending from that part of the state down through Central Texas to the Valley. However, away from this track down the middle of the state, access is much more limited in other counties.

The FCC also publishes data on the percentage of the population in the rural and urban areas of each county with broadband access under its current standard. Map 2 shows the percentage of the rural population of each county with access to 25/3 Mbps broadband in 2019.

Interestingly, in a few counties, the percentage of the rural population having broadband access was greater than the percentage of the urban population having access. For example, in Kinney County, the FCC reports that 8.6% of the rural population and none of the urban population had access to fixed broadband. As a result, only 2.2% of the county’s overall population had broadband service.

In addition, the agency’s data reveals a growing discrepancy between urban and rural areas as speeds increase.

At the national level, approximately 93.8% of the population had access in 2019 to fixed 50/5 Mbps broadband, yet coverage diverged in urban and rural areas — 98.4% and 74.9%, respectively. The discrepancy was even more stark for fixed 100/10 Mbps broadband, which was available to 97.8% of the population in urban areas but to only 66.8% of the population in rural areas.

In July, after the regular Texas legislative session ended, the National Association of Counties’ Broadband Task Force released a report on high-speed access and its importance to counties. The report highlighted nine specific themes that "serve as force multipliers in deploying better and more affordable services." The first theme called for a minimum standard of 50 Mbps for download speeds and 25 Mbps for upload speeds (50/25 Mbps). Although the FCC reports on the percentage of the nation estimated to have access to 50/25 Mbps internet speeds, it does not report county-level estimates.

Also in July, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that the FCC’s current definition of broadband (25/3 Mbps) is insufficient for small businesses. The GAO noted that in 2017, BroadbandUSA — a National Telecommunications and Information Administration program — published a fact sheet stating that small businesses need a minimum speed of 50 Mbps to conduct routine tasks such as managing inventory, operating point-of-sales transactions and coordinating shipping. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that agricultural production requires speeds of more than 25/3 Mbps. Consequently, the GAO recommended that the FCC solicit input, analyze broadband speed needs of small businesses and incorporate the results into an updated benchmark. The FCC has agreed to this recommendation.

If the FCC changes its standard, the Texas comptroller has the authority, based on provisions in HB 5, to update the minimum standard for broadband service used by the BDO to, in part, create and maintain the broadband development map.

Clearly, whether it is for agriculture, small businesses or households, there is a great need to improve broadband access in many parts of the state even at the now outdated 25/3 Mbps standard. 

As the internet and how we use it continues to evolve, the standard for minimum broadband speeds will also need to evolve. Luckily, the Legislature, in passing HB 5, has prepared the state for such an eventuality.

Download the National Association of Counties’ TestIT app to test your broadband speed anywhere.