How Broadband Federal Funds Can Transform Lives

Two years ago, broadband seemed like a luxury beyond reach for many Texans, either because of geographic or financial barriers. To others, the technology felt unfamiliar and difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic changed all that, and broadband today is an integral part of our lives and our economy. The federal government responded to the pandemic with a significant amount of funding to help states recover and rebuild, and these funds provide Texas a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand and strengthen broadband across the state to the benefit of Texans of every age, background, and economic status.

In the first part of our series on federal funds, we noted that Texas state and local governments are expected to receive $26.3 billion from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, some of which can be used for broadband infrastructure. The state also has access to an additional $484 million from the Coronavirus Capital Project Fund established by the American Rescue Plan Act. These funds appear to be dedicated primarily to broadband infrastructure, although final guidance is still pending from the U.S. Treasury. And even more funding could be coming should the INVEST in America Act pass.

This funding can help transform Texas into a better-connected state, allowing more Texans to benefit from the digital economy. To accomplish that, we must address these crucial questions:

What level of investment is needed to provide broadband to all Texans?

Thanks to the passage of House Bill 5 by Representative Ashby and Senator Nichols earlier this year, Texas now has a Broadband Development Office under the leadership of the Texas Comptroller. The office is defining the key components of the state’s broadband program: a statewide plan, broadband data maps, and a broadband fund.

Until Texas finalizes the comprehensive statewide broadband plan, nobody really knows what level of investment is needed to provide broadband to all Texans. 

The best insight we have is the work that the Deep East Texas Council of Governments (DETCOG) completed last year in collaboration with the company inCode. DETCOG’s broadband report estimates that $143 million can potentially address connectivity issues for 60% of households in a 12-county region through a mix of fiber and cellular technology. It estimates that a simultaneous, full-scale all-fiber network buildout can cost upwards of $600 million.

But the DETCOG region only encompasses 10,383 of our state’s 268,596 square miles.  And this study focused on a region where physical infrastructure will likely be prioritized over satellite technology, which may offer price-competitive alternatives in sparsely populated areas. Based on what we know from the DETCOG study, we can reasonably believe that connecting our state will require an investment in the range of billions of dollars.

How is the state coordinating with local efforts and previous federal funding received?

As the state begins prioritizing the use of available funds, we need to be cognizant of previous federal investments and current local initiatives. And we must coordinate with local governments to fill in the gaps where local funding could not reach.

Many local governments have already received a portion of their disbursements from the Fiscal Recovery Fund established by the American Rescue Plan Act and have allocated some of that money to broadband and connectivity efforts. For example, the city of Brownsville allocated $19.5 million for middle-mile broadband deployment, designed to connect underserved areas to existing networks, and the city of Von Ormy is planning on using a portion of their funding for broadband expansion.

In addition to local funding efforts, Texas broadband providers also received federal funding from programs such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund administered by the Federal Communications Commission and the ReConnect Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Between 2020 and 2021, Texas broadband providers have received close to $400 million from these programs combined.

What steps will the state take to ensure this funding actually connects all Texans?

Previous initiatives rolled out by the federal government, such as the Connect America Fund, suffered from a major flaw: connectivity requirements were met if infrastructure was laid in the area regardless of whether households actually benefited from connections. For example, a household could be ten miles from the nearest connection point, but it would be counted as within a connected “area” even though it was too far away to be connected.

To ensure all Texans have equitable access to broadband, we must learn from previous programs and work with broadband providers to develop clear goals, benchmarks, and timelines to implement and plan for adjusting efforts based on new and emerging data.

How will the state utilize its major institutions?

Texas has well over 150 different state agencies all charged with completing various services and duties for the taxpayers of Texas. In addition, there are six higher education systems with campuses across the state, 50 community college districts, and more than 1,200 local education agencies in Texas. They can serve as hubs for providing broadband access within and between communities. When investing in broadband infrastructure, Texas must consider the role that major institutions play in completing the digital divide puzzle.

For example, while broadband infrastructure investment can help ensure our state parks system is operating efficiently, and game wardens are able to maintain public safety, state park infrastructure should be utilized to expand broadband access in surrounding areas, which are often remote and underserved.

What steps will the state take to ensure households are able to participate in a digital world?

Access to broadband infrastructure is necessary but insufficient to close the digital divide.

Once a household has access to broadband, the next step is to ensure they do not face barriers because of affordability, a lack of digital skills and literacy, or limited access to a digital device. More than 3 million households in Texas, which equates to roughly 8 million Texans, do not subscribe to at-home broadband service[1] due to barriers such as cost or a lack of digital literacy.

When investing federal funds into broadband infrastructure, the state must not overlook these barriers. Texas must integrate affordable broadband options and digital literacy into its strategy to closing the digital divide. Thankfully, the allowed uses of Fiscal Recovery Funds include these strategies.

Federal funds provide Texas a truly once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand and strengthen broadband access across the state. To do so, leaders in the government and private sector must come together and coordinate efforts that will not only connect, but transform the lives of millions of Texans by welcoming them into the digital world.

[1] Data point measures households with subscriptions to broadband such as cable, fiber optic, or DSL