Texas Lawmakers Aim to Bridge Digital Divide With Broadband Expansion

The legislation had the support of almost every member of the Texas House, but it could be a year or more before underserved parts of the state start seeing results.

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

ROBY, Texas (CN) — With around 4,000 residents spread across a couple small towns and miles of farmland, Fisher County is a lot like other rural and far-flung parts of Texas. But the county stands out for having some of the lowest rates of high-speed internet access in the state, if not the country.

Just around 9% of Fisher County residents have access to broadband, internet with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second that advocates say is increasingly important for participating in the modern economy. By contrast, more than 96% of Texans overall have broadband availability, according to data from Connected Nation, a group dedicated to improving internet access.

Especially as American life went virtual during the pandemic, the lack of high-speed internet impacted almost everyone here, from students trying to attend remote classes to prisoners and elderly residents with doctor’s appointments. It also effects the local economy, because the many second homeowners who might choose to work remotely in Fisher County are unable to do so, said Fisher County Judge Ken Holt.

“Without broadband,” he explained, “they can’t work.”

Even Holt’s job duties are affected by the lack of high-quality internet. As county judge, he often has to handle late-night magistrate duties and emergency detention orders.

“I could actually do that [from home] with broadband,” Holt said. But without stable high-speed internet, “I have to get dressed.”

During the Texas legislative session this year, lawmakers took aim at the lack of broadband access in places like Fisher County, in the northwest part of the state. House Bill 5, sponsored by East Texas Republican Trent Ashby, will create a state broadband office with the goal of helping direct broadband funding into underserved areas. The legislation has been sent to Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s desk and he is expected to sign it.

The bill was a rare bipartisan triumph, gaining yes votes from every representative in the Texas House except for around a dozen conservative Republicans who fretted about access to online pornography. But with the initiative still in its early stages, it could be a year or more before places like Fisher County start seeing results.

The push to improve internet access in Texas has been growing for years. Since at least 2014, the Federal Communications Commission has required internet service providers to file a biannual form indicating the scope of their internet availability. But with ISPs only required to list places where they can or do service “at least one location” — and with the data collected at the census-block level — many complain the form creates a misleading picture of where internet services are offered.

More recently, some local officials in Texas, working with groups like Connected Nation, have been gathering household-level data on internet access, in part to show federal officials that internet access is not as widespread as they might think.

“The digital divide has been a fact, but the pandemic has highlighted it,” said Peggy O’Brien, who is helping lead one such survey in the Big Bend region through the Rio Grande Council of Governments. That’s especially true “with students not being able to get connected for schoolwork, or people working at home not being able to connect with jobs.”

When it comes to widespread internet access, Texas has a few factors working against it. With a sparse population in much of the state, it often simply doesn’t make economic sense for telecommunications companies to build out the infrastructure necessary for high-speed internet.

Even when companies do invest the infrastructure, the small customer base can drive up costs. In March, Big Bend Telephone, an internet-service provider covering Far West Texas, estimated they had to lay an average 4 miles of cable just to service one customer. By contrast, internet service providers in big cities might cover thousands of customers with the same distance. That discrepancy is often associated with significantly higher internet bills for rural residents. In Polk County in rural East Texas, fiber internet connections cost around 18 times what they might in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, according to one study.

This isn’t the first time that rural Texans’ needs for basic services have run up against economic realities. In the early and mid-20th century, much of the state faced similar problems with electricity. Big electric companies were often wary to invest in transmission lines and other infrastructure in places with few potential customers.

In 1936, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act to help subsidize electrical infrastructure in more sparsely populated parts of the country. By the 1970s, virtually all of the country had electricity.

The rural Big Bend region of West Texas. (Courthouse News photo/Travis Bubenik)

During legislative testimony on HB 5, some speakers drew parallels between electrical projects in the 20th century and internet access in the 21st.

Mike Williams, the president and CEO of Texas Electric Cooperatives, told lawmakers that “a lot of electric co-ops have been in a digital divide for most of our existence” and were working to set up high-quality internet. But without better funding and organization, there was a limit to what they could do.

When “we brought electricity to areas that were not served for many, many years, we really didn’t just bring electricity — we brought quality of life,” Williams added. “We believe broadband will do the same thing.”

Like electricity, advocates say high-speed internet access can have wide-ranging impacts on quality of life. People with high-speed internet earn more while also saving money on things like transportation. Homes with broadband access are worth more on average than those without. High-speed internet even reduces hospitalization rates, because people can attend virtual “telemedicine” appointments with doctors before they face health crises.

A lack of high-speed internet is “not just a digital gap,” said Judd Messer, who worked on the Texas broadband bill as chief of staff for Representative Ashby. “It’s a social and economic gap.” And as more of American society moves online, that gap, he added, is widening.

Especially after the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government appears increasingly aware of the importance of high-quality internet. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes around $100 billion to build out broadband networks for “every American,” describing it as “the new electricity.” That’s on top of other more targeted federal subsidies, including the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit for low-income Americans.

But Texas has more than its size working against it — it’s also one of the only states without a state broadband plan or office. Advocates say that’s hurt the ability of companies and local governments in Texas to receive federal funding, because they don’t have statewide planning documents to point to.

“We’re at a disadvantage” when it comes to federal funding, said Messer. “All these federal programs have a scoring system, and we’re getting dinged in a big way.”

Jennifer Harris, the state program director for Connected Nation Texas, often jokes that even Puerto Rico has a state broadband plan. The punchline: “Puerto Rico is not a state.”

Just a handful of other states — including New Jersey, Kentucky and South Carolina — currently lack a statewide broadband plan, Harris said. “But as far as population, we’re definitely the biggest.”

Under HB 5, Texas will be directed to set up a state broadband office and create a statewide plan for improving internet access in the state. But it will likely be a year before those plans are ready, and in the meantime advocates say their work is far from done.

Patrick Wade, a representative for the Texas Sorghum Association, testified in the Texas House about the importance of high-speed internet for improving agricultural productivity and efficiency. He’s hopeful that HB 5 will bring much-needed infrastructure, but stressed it was “really important” that state officials set up a petition process at the new broadband office, so that farmers relying on high-speed internet can point out “where services might not have lived up to what they need to be.”

“That goes a long way to making sure concerns are addressed,” he said in an interview.

Nora Belcher, the executive director for the Texas e-Health Alliance, testified about the importance of internet for telemedicine, which she said can save lives by connecting faraway doctors with people in health emergencies. Like Wade, she’s hopeful about the bill but said the work to improve internet access in Texas was far from over.

Next up was implementation, and “implementation is the most important part,” Belcher said in an interview. “If stakeholders don’t step up, you can lose momentum.”

As rural Texans wait to see the impacts of HB 5, places like Fisher County will have to keep getting by with far lower rates of broadband connectivity than big Texas cities like Houston.

As local schools went virtual during the pandemic, educators in the town of Rotan set up 30 hotspots to help students attend virtual classes. “They work really well for people that live within city limits,” said Greg Decker, the superintendent of Rotan Independent School District. But for those who live in the surrounding countryside, “it’s just not real great.”

In total, Decker estimates around 25% of virtual students didn’t have sufficient internet connections to access online classes. As a stop-gap, “we had to make packets for them.” But even compared to other remote students, the students with packets fared significantly worse.

“It was a huge difference,” Decker said in an interview. Students who relied on packets instead of online classes “just weren’t successful.”

Leanne Martinez, CEO of the Fisher County Hospital District, hopes to someday offer regular telemedicine at the local hospital, so that people in Fisher County can see specialist doctors without traveling. At the moment, seeing a specialist can be an “all-day ordeal” for many residents, especially for elderly people without cars.

But for now, the hospital’s internet connection isn’t always good enough to perform even basic functions. Though the hospital pays “tons of money” for its internet, their connection sometimes slows to a crawl or gives out entirely.

“Once our computers go down, you have to go back to that old style of documenting — and you have nurses that were not trained in formal pen and paper documentation like we used to do in the olden days,” Martinez said. “If our internet’s down or slow, we can’t take an X-ray. We can’t send it to the radiologist.”

Martinez would also like to see better internet in Fisher County for personal reasons. The hospital’s internet connection is far from ideal — but the one at her home is even worse.

Martinez pays around $120 a month for her home internet connection, and yet “we can’t all be on our phones and run Netflix at the same time,” she said. “That’s how bad it is.”

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