The COVID pandemic amplified the digital divide in Texas. It also cemented digital connectivity as a necessity for modern-day life. Broadband, or high-speed internet, provides Texans access to virtual learning, telehealth and telemedicine, online commerce, and much more. Today, there are an estimated 7.4 million people — nearly one-quarter of the state’s population — without broadband due to a lack of infrastructure, affordability, or digital literacy.
Here’s what you need to know as Texas embarks on closing the digital divide:
Legislative and Funding Recap
During the 87th Texas Legislative Session, policymakers passed House Bill 5, which established the Broadband Development Office, or BDO, and charged it with overseeing broadband expansion and digital inclusion initiatives. The Legislature also appropriated more than $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for broadband expansion.
In the fall of 2021, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $45 billion to close the digital divide — the largest investment of public funding for broadband and digital equity in American history. Last month the Biden Administration announced the Internet for All Initiative, which allows states to now apply for a portion of that $45 billion. Texas is expected to receive the largest share of funding from these programs.
Where Are We Now?
June 15, 2022 marked a critical milestone in our state’s efforts to close the digital divide as the BDO released the state’s first-ever Broadband Plan. The 2022 plan identifies guiding principles for Texas’ approach to closing the digital divide; synthesizes data and observations from the office’s statewide listening tour; and provides areas of focus for its future work. It also assigns the following tasks to be completed by the BDO:
● Connect over 1 million households to high-speed broadband;
● Improve connectivity for over 5.6 million households;
● Improve affordability of broadband for 3.6 million households; and
● Assist 3.8 million Texans with digital literacy challenges.
The 2022 plan is the first iteration of what will likely be multiple broadband plans to come from the BDO over the next few years. In August, work will begin to update the 2022 plan, so the state can draw down its share of the $45 billion in federal funding from the Internet for All initiative.
This fall, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to release updated broadband availability maps, offering a more precise look at the availability of fixed and mobile broadband services. The BDO is also expected to release statewide broadband availability maps under this new improved mapping methodology. The BDO will have the opportunity to challenge any discrepancies with the FCC maps and its display of Texas.
Around the same time, the BDO is expected to open up grant applications for a portion of the $500 million appropriated by the Texas legislature for broadband expansion. We expect there will be a multitude of grant rounds until the $500 million is fully obligated. In accordance with federal guidance, all funds must be fully expended by December 31, 2026.
Additionally, under the Internet for All initiative, Texas is not expected to open up grant applications with these funds until 2024. The state is required to complete a series of steps, such as submit a five-year plan, initial proposal, and a final proposal, before receiving funds to make grant awards.
How Can You Help?
Beginning in August, the BDO will embark on creating its five-year plan, emphasizing digital equity. As this planning process unfolds, Texans will be able to — and should — participate. The BDO “plans to engage in outreach to underrepresented communities through the creation of a community task force or advisory board, community-level outreach, and continued work with local governments.”
Broadband access and digital connectivity provide access to many key services that help improve quality of life and economic prosperity. Before the pandemic, many of those impacted by the digital divide were from marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. With the heightened importance of digital connectivity and the historic investment of public funding flowing to the state, this is our opportunity to close the digital divide once and for all.