Without a statewide broadband office and plan, new federal funding won’t close the digital divide in Texas
At the end 2020, Congress passed a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that invests $7 billion in broadband initiatives, including support for low-income Americans, minority serving institutions, and broadband mapping improvements. Some Texans will certainly benefit from these federal funds, but the money does very little for our state’s rural communities and only buys time unless Texas makes some long overdue changes.
An estimated 3 million Texas households do not subscribe to broadband services for various reasons, including affordability. The largest pot of funds – $3.2 billion – will provide temporary help to some low-income households by offering broadband subscription and device subsidies, but six months after the COVID-19 crisis ends, these households will be disconnected again unless a permanent solution is developed.
Even where affordability is not an issue, though, broadband services are not always readily available. Recent data from Connected Nation Texas indicates that broadband infrastructure is not available to over 300,000 households, approximately 90% of which are rural. As part of the COVID-19 relief funding, Congress allocated $300 million to support rural broadband development across the nation. This may help rural connectivity in other parts of the country, but rural Texas is more complex, with needs that vary by region.
It’s important to keep in mind that Texas’ rural population is larger than the population of 18 states, but over a vast area comprising challenging terrain. The Deep East Texas region provides a glimpse into the financial resources required to connect rural communities in Texas. It’s estimated that an investment of $110 million would connect 60% of households in the 12-county region. In other words, a single region of Texas would need one-third of the dollars allocated for all of rural America. We need a funding solution to match the scale of rural Texas.
Even if there were enough money, it may not matter anyway. Without a statewide broadband plan and office, it is unclear whether Texas would be able draw on the funds. Partnerships between state governments, local governments, and broadband providers are required to qualify for any portion of the $300 million for rural broadband. And as one of only 6 states without a statewide broadband plan, Texas will be at a disadvantage when competing for funding from the $635 million for USDA’s ReConnect program to help fund rural broadband infrastructure that was included in a Congressional omnibus package for fiscal year 2021 appropriations. The application period for this program is expected to open up later this year.
This new influx of federal funding may be insufficient to close the digital divide in Texas, but it indicates that the federal government is investing in critical broadband infrastructure, and we can’t afford to leave money sitting on the table. The 87th Legislature has an opportunity to ensure Texas is organized for success and can benefit from these and future funds by establishing a statewide broadband office and plan this year, and by strongly considering a funding program for rural infrastructure to assist those areas that will remain unserved.