All Systems Go for Texas Broadband Expansion Bill

While the seemingly age-old partisan wars over immigration, abortion and voting rights continue to divide Texas lawmakers this legislative session, internet-for-all legislation appears to be on a friction-free path to the governor’s desk.

A router and internet switch. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

HOUSTON (CN) — Online schooling. Covid-19 vaccine registration. Telemedicine. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Americans to jump into the deep end of the digital revolution. Yet millions of Texans lack what it takes to stay afloat in this new era: broadband internet. A new bill aims to expand access to every corner of the sprawling state.

“I’m hard-pressed to find an issue many of our constituents are more concerned with than their lack of access to reliable and affordable internet,” Texas state Representative Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, said Thursday, laying out his House Bill 5 to the Texas House State Affairs Committee.

While the seemingly age-old partisan wars over immigration, abortion and voting rights continue to divide Texas Republicans and Democrats this legislative session, Ashby’s legislation appears to be on a friction-free path to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk where its sure to receive his signature.

“Broadband access is not a luxury, it is an essential tool that must be available for all Texans,” Abbott said in his Feb. 1 State of the State Address, designating it one of his top priorities.        

One can easily imagine this connectivity chasm on farms in the tumbleweed-strewn plains of the Texas Panhandle, or in homes along back roads deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, but it’s also right there in the suburbs of the state capital Austin.

Randy Willis is the superintendent of Granger Independent School District, which has around 500 students and is in Williamson County.

The pandemic-driven switch to online classes last year was problematic for the district, Willis testified Thursday before the State Affairs Committee.

“My district is only 45 minutes from downtown Austin. Over 10% of my students don’t have internet connectivity or a stable connection, over 10% of my teachers didn’t have a stable connection and were unable to perform as effectively as they could,” he said.

The district provided hot spots for students without broadband service, Willis said, but those were not always sufficient.

“There’s only have so much bandwidth that they have. And when you have two or three kids at home that are having to be online for three or four hours it really created a problem,” he said.

Texas measures students’ academic progress through standardized tests, and rates districts and schools in part on how their pupils do on them.

Within two years all state exams will be required to be taken online. Willis said many administrators are worried their districts won’t have the broadband infrastructure in place to meet that mandate.

Kathy Green is the director of advocacy for AARP Texas and its 2.3 million members.

Texas on Monday lowered the age of eligibility for Covid vaccines to 50, which is how old you have to be to join AARP. This portends more phone calls for the organization as it tries to bridge the divide between shot providers and its members without internet service.

“That’s something that’s very much done over the internet,” Green told the committee. “So it’s a struggle for folks who are trying to get vaccinated, and we are trying to reach our membership who is not connected in other ways.”

Another way broadband can help the sick and elderly is telemedicine.

Dan Finch, vice president of advocacy for the Texas Medical Association, testified he believes telemedicine has advanced a decade in 10 months due to the pandemic. He said it has had extraordinary benefits for rural Texans, if of course they have access to broadband.

“You take a small town primary care physician, the opportunity to use telemedicine for specialty care consults without making the patient drive 50, 60, or 100 miles really begins to demonstrate the ability to overcome barriers of time and distance,” he said.

Ashby’s bill would create a state broadband development office – Texas is one of only six states without such an office – that will map the extent of the state’s internet access down to home addresses and award grants and low-interest loans to telecom companies to install broadband infrastructure.

Representing Verizon, Bill Lawson told the committee the telecom giant supports HB 5, but suggested Texas should rely on internet connectivity maps from the Federal Communications Commission “to avoid spending state dollars on an extremely complex mapping effort that Congress has just funded a couple months ago.”

The legislation calls for the broadband office to be overseen by the State Comptroller’s Office of Public Accounts, and it’s projected it will cost that agency $3.8 million over five years, according to analysis from the Legislative Budget Board.

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