Funding Opportunities and Recommendations to Getting More Texans Online
The following remarks were delivered by Texas 2036 Senior Policy Advisor Luis Acuña at the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce hearing on June 29, 2022. This is a summary of his testimony on the Interim Charge related to the monitoring of HB 5 and HB 1505.
Texas 2036 is and has been committed to bridging the digital divide in our state. We had the privilege of working on the Governor’s Initiative, Operation Connectivity, at the onset of the pandemic. And we co-lead a coalition with the Texas Rural Funders and Greater Houston Partnership called Digital Texas.
Today, I wanted to use my time to share with you findings from our most recent commissioned report, discuss the recent Notice of Funding Opportunities, and offer recommendations for the committee’s consideration going into the next legislative session.
Baker Institute Report
A key takeaway from our report with the Center for Public Finance at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy is that low-Earth-orbiting satellite broadband provides a competitive option in the economic modeling performed by Rice University for closing the digital divide in very remote areas of our state.
We believe our report supports the Comptroller’s recent communications on technology neutrality. At Texas 2036 we also have technology neutrality as a policy principle and we support the Comptroller’s statements. We encourage the state to also view low-Earth orbiting satellites as a viable alternative for very remote areas of our state.
Notice of Funding Opportunities
Texas 2036 has reviewed and analyzed the recent Notice of Funding Opportunities that serve as guidance for the distribution of $45 billion from money authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.
We acknowledge there are concerns with the Notice of Funding Opportunities. And we advise caution against an overcorrection with our state program. We believe there will be opportunities to negotiate and work with the federal government throughout the process. For example, the state will begin preparing a five-year broadband plan over nine months, and the state will also submit initial and final proposals on the use of the fund.
These will be key opportunities to work with the federal government to figure out a way we believe these funds can be used best to achieve broadband ubiquity in our state. However, if we do land in conflicts with the federal government, we have some recommendations the state can pursue.
1. We support the appropriation of state funds for broadband expansion. There are a couple of ways to optimize these funds:
- As previously mentioned, if we land in conflict with the federal government, we can use state funds to advance initiatives we believe are right for Texas and supplement the federal funds.
- There is a 25% matching requirement to draw down the federal funds and the state funds can be used for this purpose. I do want to caveat, that state funds are not the only source required, the 25% match can also be met though ARPA funds, local funds, private funds, or a mix.
2. When it comes to mapping, Texas must develop an underserved definition in statute. This recommendation was originally made by the 2021 Governor’s Broadband Development Council report. An underserved area definition is needed to ensure certain communities are not overlooked when deploying public funding for projects. Without this definition we run the risk of creating a new digital divide.
3. We encourage the state to work with local governments on streamlining their permitting and right-of-way access processes to ensure broadband projects are completed on a timely basis.
4. We encourage the legislature to review state statutes to remove barriers that inhibit redundancy development of middle-mile networks for emergency preparedness. As a state, we need to increase redundancy in our middle-mile networks to ensure communities do not get cut out from the internet during disasters.
The enactment of House Bill 5 last legislative session was just the start of all the work Texas will be doing to close the digital divide. Achieving broadband ubiquity will take the support of every stakeholder in our state.