By Pete Winckler and Shiloh Perry
COVID-19 exacerbated the need for reliable high-speed internet access for all Texans. The pandemic led classrooms across the state to shift to virtual instruction. Office closures and capacity reductions moved meetings and workdays to home offices. Medical care leaned increasingly on telemedicine.
“One of the biggest issues (with the lack of broadband in the county) was related to educating our kids,” said Floyd County Judge Marty Lucke. “Students couldn’t do their work because of lack of internet access or access being too slow. We knew that if the county wasn’t able to help with the need, kids were just going to fall behind.”
Gov. Greg Abbott has named broadband expansion an emergency item for the Texas Legislature this session, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made more apparent the digital divide that exists statewide.
Nearly a million Texans, or approximately 3.4% of the state’s population, lack access to broadband in their homes, with 90% of that deficiency spread across rural Texas, according to a November report by the Governor’s Broadband Development Council. Created by the bipartisan House Bill 1960 during the last legislative session, the council has studied where broadband is unavailable and has offered recommendations that include establishing a state broadband office and plan.
County government officials and staff are often the first tasked with navigating and meeting resident need associated with the state’s lack of broadband connectivity.
During a recent talk with Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick for TAC’s Counties at the Capitol Legislative Day on Feb. 23, House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) said he anticipates bipartisan support for the expansion of broadband this session.
“I'm really confident that for rural Texas, because ... they do lack the infrastructure, that they'll have broadband capabilities in the coming years,” Phelan said.
Counties impacted by unreliable broadband
Because rural areas tend to be less densely populated, the cost per person of laying down broadband infrastructure can be costly compared to urban areas. Rural areas also tend to have more older adults and lower-income individuals who might have challenges understanding the need for broadband or being able to afford it, according to the council report.
Lucke, a member of the governor's broadband council, said that his county's residents need broadband for a variety of purposes, including telemedicine and education -- the two areas with the most need for broadband, according to the council.
Public facilities in Floyd County have become hubs for access.
“Our library’s Wi-Fi is on 24/7 now since the pandemic began. I get to work pretty early, and I already see folks sitting outside in the parking lots on their laptops before the work or school day starts,” Lucke said. “They are either downloading or submitting a school assignment or doing research related to a certain responsibility they are taking care of that day.”
Urban areas in Texas, where pockets of low-income individuals live, also have access issues. The council’s report said 100,000 urban Texans do not have access. Staff in some counties are fulfilling those needs instead.
"A frequent request that we received from residents who check out our program's Wi-Fi hot spots, especially during the recent historic winter storm, was, 'Please don't turn off the Wi-Fi service because I am late returning the hot spot,'" said Laura Cole, director of Bibliotech, Bexar County’s all-digital public library. “If the hot spot was turned off, those disconnected or economically disadvantaged that were using it could not communicate with their loved ones.”
Through the program, Cole and other county staff provide residents with the ability to check out devices that are internet-enabled, so they can access library services. Cole said the initiative helps foster digital inclusion and can be replicated in other parts of the state.
“When we look at broadband, we have to look at it as the biggest learning opportunity of our lifetime, because it is,” Cole said. “In order for broadband access and reliability to be improved, everyone in the state has to be (on) a level playing field and collectively understand and prioritize its need as it applies to housing, business operations, health care and education.”
What to expect this session
By naming broadband expansion an emergency item, Abbott clears the way for legislative action earlier than would otherwise be permitted under the Texas Constitution.
Phelan has echoed the governor’s call for action, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that the item was a priority for the Texas Senate as well, reserving Senate Bill 5 for the subject. Roughly a half-dozen other bills have already been filed to directly address broadband expansion.
“I don't have to tell you that now after COVID-19, relying on the internet for school and for work and for so many other things, that every Texan has gotten the message that broadband, rural broadband is important and our part of the state is largely underserved,” said Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), during TAC’s Counties at the Capitol Day.
Abbott’s broadband council identified two chief recommendations: create a state broadband plan and establish a state broadband office, with an additional recommendation that Texas develop a state program to incentivize broadband deployment in underserved areas.
The latter recommendation speaks to the economic reality that delivering broadband access across the state is costly and likely only to be accomplished by establishing it as a state priority with a dedicated funding mechanism. Funding opportunities exist in public-private partnerships, direct appropriations, or some combination of the two.
Budget writers are already challenged by the pandemic recession and a $1.3 billion shortfall in crafting the 2022-23 budget. But federal aid might exist.
If the Legislature creates a broadband office and state broadband plan, Texas will have increased eligibility for federal funding. During his campaign, President Joe Biden committed to a $20 billion investment to deliver broadband to small towns and rural areas.
The governor’s council said in its report that the benefits of improving access to broadband include economic development, more educational opportunities, better public safety and improved health care delivery.
“Broadband access is not a luxury, it is an essential tool that must be available for all Texans,” Abbott has said on Twitter.
Several bills filed thus far during the 87th legislative session seek to expand broadband services:
House Bill 5 by Rep. Trent Ashby, (R-Lufkin), would create the broadband development office under the comptroller of public accounts to serve as a resource for information regarding broadband, engage in outreach regarding expansion, and serve as a clearinghouse for federal programs offering assistance to local entities. The broadband office would develop a broadband development map classifying each designated area by either eligible or ineligible based on 80% of the addresses within the area having access to broadband services. The office would create a state broadband plan that establishes long-term goals for greater access.
House Bill 1446 by Rep. Trent Ashby, (R-Lufkin), would establish the broadband development office within the comptroller of public accounts and requires the broadband office to create and maintain the broadband development map.
House Bill 425 by Rep. Ken King, (R-Canadian), would expand the use of the Universal Service Fund to create and fund rural broadband development projects in underserved areas of Texas.
House Bill 1511 by Rep. Angie Chen Button, (R-Richardson), would establish the connectivity office within the office of the governor to collaborate with the Governor’s Broadband Development Council to expand access to high-speed internet services. The office would publish a broadband development map to display areas that do not have sufficient infrastructure to support high-speed internet service.
Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Robert Nichols, (R-Jacksonville), would establish the State Broadband Development Office under the University of Texas System to serve as a resource for information and engage in outreach for broadband services. The bill would establish a board of advisers composed of 11 appointed members. The broadband office would develop and maintain a broadband development map on the office’s website classifying each designated area by either eligible or ineligible based on 80% of the addresses within the area having access to broadband services. The office would create a state broadband plan that establishes long-term goals for greater access.
Senate Bill 154 by Sen. Charles Perry, (R-Lubbock), would establish the broadband office within the Public Utilities Commission to develop and promote proposals for broadband expansion and would create the Broadband Grant Program. The office would establish the grant program for applicants in underserved areas and would require established considerations in the bill before making an award.