Many Texans lack access to high-speed internet

To see the critical role that broadband internet plays in 21st century Texas, look no further than this column.

If you’re reading it on a screen, your device is probably connected to a high-speed internet service. If you’re reading it in a newspaper, there’s a good chance you paid for it electronically on a secure network you trust.

If you like it (or you hate it), you might share it on a social media site that needs high-speed internet connections. Or you might send it in an email.

To be sure, some Texans choose to live without high-speed internet. But it should be a choice — no Texas community should be denied the profound advantages it offers people and businesses.

Broadband service has become a gateway to opportunity. It creates and nourishes thriving economies in the 21st century, just as rural electrification projects and Farm-to-Market roads did in the 20th century. Like paved highways and electricity, broadband has become basic economic infrastructure.

Yet broadband service is beyond the reach of too many Texans. About 2 million people across the state lack access to fixed broadband. Rural areas are especially hard-hit: 31 percent of rural Texans do not have any access to basic broadband service.

That lack of access has become a clear and present economic danger, especially in rural Texas. The state is projected to add 10 million people between now and its bicentennial in 2036, but most of that growth will be concentrated in the triangle between the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio metropolitan areas. More than half of all Texas counties are projected to have zero or negative job growth over the next generation. A shortage of broadband access exacerbates those economic challenges.

The problem of a digital divide isn’t limited to rural areas. Five major Texas cities — Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, and Corpus Christi — rank among the top 25 large U.S. cities with the “worst connections,” according to census data. That means a quarter or more of their populations do not subscribe to fixed broadband services due to cost or other factors. And statewide, Texas ranks just 38th in broadband adoption among the states, with 35 percent of Texas households not subscribing to fixed internet.

While the lack of access in many Texas communities is a problem, it’s also an opportunity. For instance, according to a 2019 U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center report last year, increased access to digital tools over three years could generate nearly $6.7 billion in increased annual sales for rural Texas businesses, while creating more than 23,000 additional Texas jobs.

Nonprofits and communities cannot drive this growth alone – state leaders and policy makers are necessary to ensure the coordination, policy and funding come together so broadband access is deployed. The establishment of the Governor’s Broadband Development Council is a step in the right direction, but it must get to work.

If you have access to broadband internet, you know what a difference it has played in your life.

Imagine if everyone had it.

Margaret Spellings is former secretary of education and CEO of Texas 2036, an organization that highlights challenges and opportunities facing Texas as the state’s bicentennial approaches. Wynn Rosser, Ph.D., is President and CEO of T.L.L. Temple Foundation and a board member of Texas 2036.