The Lone Star State doesn’t have a state broadband office or plan. Stakeholders, including legislators, are trying to change that in the wake of COVID-19 and a historic winter storm.
Texas is rumbling with signs that its state-level approach to broadband must — and might — change.
The Senate Transportation Committee, led by Sen. Robert Nichols, held a hearing Wednesday on Senate Bill 5, which would, among other things, establish a state broadband office and call for the creation of a state broadband plan. Nichols expects the committee to vote on the bill soon and for the legislation to then go before the entire Senate.
“I filed this bill as an important step toward expanding broadband access statewide,” Nichols said in a column for KJAS.com. “During the hearing, 89 witnesses signed up to testify. Not one of them testified against this bill.”
There is a growing feeling among many stakeholders that Texas, especially given how large it is, needs a state office dedicated to broadband strategies. Steven Johnson, a member of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Broadband Development Council, said an office would provide an essential planning piece for the gigantic state.
“It is just so difficult when you have a state that is essentially five regions … There’s just this variety here that doesn’t lend itself to [blanket] statewide policy in many respects,” said Johnson, who also serves as president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas (ICUT). “I think having a coordinating entity with a plan that regions can have input on will make all the difference in the world.”
Expanding on this point, Johnson pointed out that while a region like East Texas faces problems with line of sight given its many trees, West Texas is a different ballgame with far fewer trees but vast distances between places and people. Further, affordability doubly affects an area like Rio Grande Valley, the poorest part of the state.
Darrin Rankin, vice president and chancellor of Western Governors University (WGU) Texas, refuses to believe any broadband problem in Texas is unsolvable, regardless of a local area’s geography and socioeconomic conditions. He also sees a state broadband office as a step in the right direction, though maybe it’s not enough to fully solve the problem of access.
“We managed to fly to outer space, but we can’t get Internet access?” Rankin posed. “That just doesn’t sound right to me.”
Rankin stated that Internet problems abound all over Texas, even in urban areas like Houston. Rankin’s children go to school with some kids who don’t have home computers. During Hurricane Harvey, many of his staff at the time had communication problems with work due to a lack of connectivity.
“Same thing with the winter weather event,” Rankin said. “There were some employees with my former place of employment who I learned didn’t have access at all to the Internet. And they’re here in Houston. Either they couldn’t afford it, or it wasn’t available to them, or if it was available to them, it was spotty.”
ICUT and WGU Texas, along with the Texas Association of Community Colleges, recently commissioned a poll that included items about the state’s digital divide. Out of 800 respondents, about one-quarter indicated Internet access is an obstacle to completing a degree. Moreover, roughly one-third reported that they had to buy Internet equipment for either work or school during the pandemic. And of these buyers, 43 percent said their purchases were a “financial hardship.”
Similar troubles have led the Texas Education Agency to commit to “making free at-home internet available to every public school student beyond the pandemic,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
“It’s time to change,” Rankin said. “It’s time to do something new.”
Change will require dollars, and dollars will require a state plan and data, as Nichols has articulated.
“If we do not have a statewide plan, we lose credits on competition for federal grants,” Nichols said, according to Spectrum News. “The federal government has tried to map and they’re going to get a lot better at it. I’m convinced, but we need to have our own map to identify down to the address level, whether that service is available or not. And if that service meets that quality standard.”
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