School Closures Put Digital Divide in Spotlight

With Texas public schools closed for at least the next month, whether a student has reliable internet access at home is becoming even more critical. Unfortunately, millions of Texans lack reliable broadband access.

Statewide, 2 million Texans do not have access to a high-speed broadband connection. This lack of access hits rural Texas especially hard — almost a third of rural Texans do not have high-speed access — but it also affects many low-income families in urban areas. In fact, 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. And statewide, Texas ranks just 38th in broadband adoption among the states, with 35 percent of Texas households not subscribing to fixed internet.

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. And in this crisis, it’s also a gateway to the education that Texas students need.

Much of the instruction that students would normally receive inside of school buildings has shifted online during the COVID-19 crisis. Students are not only getting their assignments online, but many parents are using online educational programs to keep their children busy.

But for some Texans, this isn’t an option.

Fortunately, many public school districts have stepped up and provided students with tablets and other devices to ensure the learning continues while schools are closed. This is one of many ways that Texas public schools are going to extraordinary lengths to meet students’ needs in these challenging times.

But schools’ laudable effort to keep students connected in the short term will not erase the need for longer-term investments in greater broadband access. By the time this crisis is over, online learning is likely to become much more common. And it doesn’t stop with education. As Texans become more comfortable with virtual meetings and other ways to conduct business from their computers and other devices, the importance of making sure more Texans are connected is only going to grow.

The future success of our state and our fellow Texans will be directly linked to widespread access to reliable broadband connections in urban, suburban and rural areas. The current crisis has underscored the need for action, innovation and long-term thinking.