New Federal Money Will Help, But Won’t Close Digital Divide Without More State Action

Over the next decade, almost two dozen broadband companies operating in Texas will be able to draw on $362 million from the federal government to invest in our state’s rural broadband infrastructure with the goal of connecting more than 300,000 Texas homes and businesses.

Current expectations are that 40% of this new broadband infrastructure will be built out over three years, and the remaining premises developed over the subsequent seven years.

Clearly, this is good news for Texas, as we rank among the worst states in terms of broadband access. Our rural populations do not have the adequate infrastructure needed to support broadband and our urban populations lag in adoption rates.

However, it adds even more urgency for Texas state elected officials and legislators to act this upcoming session to ensure that five steps are put into place today to ensure we are organized for success. Without appropriate data, planning, and coordination, Texas will struggle to leverage these and other federal dollars as well as work with the 22 broadband providers to ensure the rural infrastructure they build support the immediate and future healthcare, education and economic needs of Texas’ growing population.

These five are:

  1. Texas Must Adopt a Comprehensive Broadband Plan: Texas is 1 of 6 (soon to be 5) states that lack a broadband plan, which provides guidance to the private sector on the public interests of broadband deployment, such as telehealth, distance learning, workforce development or economic development. States with broadband plans are eligible for additional “points” with federal programs, meaning that our failure to adopt a broadband plan may be inhibiting us from maximizing the drawdown of federal funds.
  2. Texas Must Establish a Broadband Office: Nearly three-quarters of states have a broadband office, but Texas does not. A broadband office provides statewide coordination on broadband deployment to ensure funding from various sources, including federal funding, are deployed effectively and efficiently to meet the public interests of Texans. Leveraging this federal funding with millions received from the USDA earlier in the year would improve the state’s outcomes by coordinating them for public interest, such as telehealth, distance learning and economic development.
  3. Texas Must Develop Better Broadband Data: Texas does not have a broadband data and mapping program and relies on FCC Form 477 data, which has proven to be unreliable when it comes to accurately measuring broadband access. Relying on this data overstates broadband access in rural areas and misses the specific community challenges and opportunities that more robust data and mapping programs will provide. We must be able to accurately identify where gaps exist if we are to effectively use these and other resources to close them.
  4. Texas Must Evaluate All Broadband Barriers: More than 3 million Texas households do not subscribe to broadband services today, largely stemming from affordability and digital literacy issues. These limitations have been seen this year, when millions of students could not access education, healthcare or work. The new infusion of federal funding will do very little to assist Texas in closing this part of the digital divide.
  5. Pursue Market Reforms and Incentives: Texas should consider ways in which our state can promote public-private partnerships, establish market reforms to incent digital connectivity and identify stable funding streams, so that Texas can move forward quickly in the short-term to address the critical needs of Texans created by the pandemic.

Texas is poised to change our status as a state with one of the worst broadband access records to one that is organized for success. To do so, we need not just financial investment but the data, planning, and coordination that will ensure those funds are spent wisely.