Lawmakers wrap work on broadband cleanup bill

Legislation aimed at putting Texas in the best position possible to draw down the maximum in federal dollars available for expanding broadband access across the state is now headed to the Governor’s desk.

SB 1238 by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and sponsored on the House side by Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, received final approval this week in both chambers.

The legislation builds on HB 5 (87-R), last session’s broadband expansion legislation.

SB 1238 would clarify broadband speed standards, update mapping requirements and language, and authorize the Broadband Development Office to award grants, loans and other incentives for broadband expansion projects in the state.

The details on SB 1238

Taking a closer look, the bill begins by defining “broadband service” as internet service that provides speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for a download and at least 3 megabits per second for an upload, with a network round-trip latency of less than or equal to 100 milliseconds based on the 95th percentile for speed measurements. At speeds of 25/3 megabits per second, a user may use streaming services, browse the web, use social media, and participate in a Zoom call, but may face delays when trying to download or upload large files. An internet speed of 25/3 megabits per second would also be insufficient if multiple users in a household were simultaneously using the internet for these activities. Latency affects the user experience — low latency generally means webpages load in a speedy manner and applications run without delay.

The bill also revises language around the state broadband map, which will now look at “locations” rather than “designated areas” (census blocks) to assess whether locations can be considered unserved or not by broadband service. This change will potentially increase the number of areas in the state eligible for broadband funding and will better align Texas state statute with the FCC’s Broadband Map and the notice of funding opportunity for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program.

The map is published annually.

Unserved vs. Underserved

An “unserved” location is defined as not having access to internet service at speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads.

The bill also defines an “underserved” location as a location that is not unserved but does not have access to reliable internet service capable of providing speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for a download and 20 megabits per second for an upload.

The bill then establishes that a “served” location is one that is neither unserved or underserved, as defined above.

What the BDO will do

SB 1238 also addresses the Broadband Development Office, permitting it to award grants, loans and financial incentives for eligible broadband infrastructure projects that commit to expanding broadband in unserved and underserved locations in the state.

The bill defines eligible projects as those in which at least 80 percent of the broadband serviceable locations that would be served by a project are considered underserved or unserved, as defined by the bill.

SB 1238 also adds language allowing the BDO to award grants, loans and incentives for middle-mile broadband infrastructure projects as well as those that enhance or promote digital skills and training, assist with equipment purchases, facilitate community outreach or increase the accessibility, affordability or adoption of remote learning and telehealth facilities.

The bill also includes a preference for the use of fiber optic technology in the deployment of broadband. It would require the BDO to “prioritize broadband infrastructure projects that connect each end-user location using end-to-end fiber optic facilities.” However, the bill allows for exceptions to be made in high-cost areas where alternative technologies like satellite may be deployed at a lower cost than end-to-end fiber or which otherwise meet the office’s speed, latency and reliability criteria.

Additionally, the bill requires the BDO to “favor policies that are technology-neutral and protect all members of the public” in developing the state’s broadband plan.

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