The state of Texas wants to bring reliable, affordable high-speed internet to all Texans to ensure equal access to education, health care, and commerce. The Broadband Development Office, created by the Legislature last year and operated by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, is tasked with making this goal a reality.
“The pandemic exposed how vital broadband access is to Texans,” said Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar. “Parents, teachers, consumers, and farmers all depend on the internet in their daily lives and work.”
The Comptroller’s office recently published the first Texas Broadband Plan, which shares the results of a study on connecting the state. The plan is built around survey responses from more than 16,000 residents, discussions at 60 virtual roundtables, and feedback gathered during a dozen townhalls, including a stop in Edinburg at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“The Legislature prioritized broadband access across Texas to expand economic development opportunities,” said Sergio Contreras, CEO, Atlas, Hall & Rodriguez LLP., and a Broadband Development Office Board of Advisors, appointed by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “The office will award grants or other financial instruments to meet the goals of the plan and address barriers for future expansion efforts.”
Within the South Texas region, an economic area that encompasses the Rio Grande Valley, 92% of households have access to high-speed broadband, and the region has some of the highest coverage rates in the state for schools and hospitals. But the region has challenges when it comes to service and device affordability. Thirty-eight schools, almost entirely in rural areas, lack coverage. Rural areas can be especially challenging places to provide access due to the long distances between residents.
Providing service via fiber to many households “wouldn’t be financially possible,” said one director of an economic development consortium who attended an Edinburg townhall, but there are alternatives. “People want the Cadillac out there, but really the Civic will do.”
Hegar is concerned that new rules by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) requiring states to prioritize fiber connectivity will further hinder access for these areas, in contradiction to their intention. Prioritizing fiber technology might complicate existing supply chain kinks and labor shortages, ultimately adding to delays and costs.
“That technology is not feasible for many smaller and more remote communities — and those communities should not be penalized,” Hegar said. “I’ve had the chance to meet with the NTIA and voice these concerns, and I am hopeful they will work with us to find a solution that helps Texas bridge the digital divide.”
The South Texas region is considered one of the most vulnerable for lack of broadband due to issues of affordability and digital literacy, despite its extensive coverage. Education levels and household income can greatly impact whether individuals receive the full benefit of high-speed internet.
The state’s plan is intended to lay the groundwork, and Hegar notes that the work is far from finished.
“We want to connect every home and business, and we’ll do what we can to ensure providers will continue to follow through on their contractual promises after the construction ends,” Hegar said.