By Kelty Garbee, Ph.D.
We stand at a pivotal moment for our state, especially our rural residents and underserved communities. That’s not just big Texas talk and swagger, it’s backed up by significant leaps forward in policymaking and funding that should drive a more connected Texas.
We know our challenges. According to a report by the Texas Governor’s Broadband Development Council, more than 819,000 Texans do not have access to broadband at home. And, while some communities may have reliable access to high-speed Internet, a gap in adoption of technology persists due to affordability, inconsistent service, or a lack of skills and devices to get connected.
Broadband remains a critical need for underserved urban and rural communities. Now, for the first time, the policy and budgetary stars are aligning to spring Texas forward at lightspeed. Just one year ago, Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed broadband an emergency item allowing broadband bills to move swiftly through the legislative process.
This month, the state’s broadband office, created through House Bill 5, embarks on a Broadband Listening Tour across our state. Comptroller Glenn Hegar will tour 12 communities to get Texans’ insights about internet access and collect public input to help drive the state’s first broadband plan. For those unable to attend, a public survey available on the Comptroller’s website provides additional opportunities for input.
HB 5 set in motion a response that begins to address the long-running challenges facing high-speed Internet connectivity and adoption in Texas. Then came funding from the massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The $1.2 trillion package dedicates $65 billion to broadband expansion. The Lone Star State could receive more than a billion of those dollars. That’s in addition to $500 million Texas lawmakers allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal coronavirus relief package passed last spring.
Funding will go toward physical infrastructure in rural and other underserved communities. In some areas, subsidies will help Texans secure broadband access for their homes and businesses. An estimated 29% of Texans meet the income eligibility criteria established by the federal government to access grants to help pay for high-speed internet service.
We must be smart and deliberate, yet expeditious in our approach to dispersing these funds. We should fund a statewide broadband demand study to ensure that we are planning and building for the future. A study like this would increase opportunities for local communities to draw down federal funds to support broadband investment, deployment, and access. This is especially vital to rural communities where coverage ranges from non-existent to inconsistent at best.
Broadband in rural Texas isn’t simply a Field of Dreams, where “if you build it, they will come.” We must continue working together to ensure infrastructure, affordability, and adoption of broadband across our entire state. A connected Texas — one that brings the power of high-speed internet to rural and underserved communities — is a way to ignite a bold, brash entrepreneurial spirit that’s quintessentially Texan and will drive our state forward.
The Broadband Listening Tour and survey give Texans a chance to weigh in on our future. Make your voice heard, and let’s connect Texas.
Dr. Kelty Garbee is Executive Director of Texas Rural Funders, a philanthropic coalition that works with rural communities to develop and implement solutions to their unique needs. Online at texasruralfunders.org