Okla. Budgets $42M for Tax Rebates to Broadband Providers

The budget for Oklahoma's upcoming fiscal year includes $42 million that will be given to companies that expand Internet access in rural areas. About one-fifth of Oklahoma homes don't have broadband.

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(TNS) — State lawmakers are prioritizing expanding broadband in rural parts of Oklahoma.

As part of a larger push to increase broadband access, the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes $42 million in tax rebates for companies to expand broadband in unserved or underserved rural areas.

Rep. Logan Phillips, R-Mounds, has advocated for improving broadband infrastructure in Oklahoma since he was first elected in 2018. Little did he know then that a global pandemic was all he needed to get his point across.

"The one good thing that came out of COVID is that everybody went home during the pandemic, and when they all logged on at the same time, they realized their Internet was terrible," he said.

This legislative session, Phillips helped shepherd through the Oklahoma Legislature a package of bills to improve broadband access and set up a framework for the tax incentives and future federal funds.

To qualify for a portion of the $42 million in rebates, Internet service providers will have to build out infrastructure and offer Internet speeds that that are in keeping with standards set by the Federal Communications Commission.

Roughly, one in five Oklahoma households doesn't have Internet access. A 2019 report ranked Oklahoma as 47th in the nation for broadband connectivity.

Under new legislation, Internet service providers will have to submit maps of their networks to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the Rural Broadband Expansion Council, which Phillips co-chairs alongside Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow.

The Oklahoma Legislature approved the creation of the council last year despite vetoes from Gov. Kevin Stitt, who, citing a broadband task force formed by his administration, called the legislative effort "unnecessary and redundant."

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, who lobbied for the council's creation, said improving broadband access will continue to be a priority.

"It often gets tagged as a rural broadband issue, but it's really a rural, suburban and urban approach as well," he said.

A 2020 survey conducted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education at the start of the pandemic showed nearly 25% of Oklahoma public school students didn't have Internet connectivity at home.

About 90% of Oklahoma's school districts are considered partly or entirely rural, said Erika Buzzard Wright, leader of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, at a recent broadband forum. That means some students who attend urban schools live in rural areas outside the urban core.

Broadband access isn't the only problem in rural parts of the state. In some instances, the high cost of Internet service at makes home Internet unaffordable for the average family, she said.

Even before the pandemic, rural students had a limited ability to study outside of school. Some students have outdated textbooks, no Internet service at home and public libraries can be few and far between in rural areas, Wright said.

"In our rural areas, the disparity that we found ... is you've got kiddos that all of their learning, even prior to the pandemic, is taking place in the classroom because once they leave, they don't have Internet or a laptop," she said.

The Federal Communications Commission last year announced roughly $7 million in federal grants to expand broadband in Oklahoma.

More federal funds could be on the way.

President Joe Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan includes $100 billion to connect all Americans to Internet service over the next eight years. Whether Congress will approve Biden's plan is unclear.

The 16-member Rural Broadband Expansion Council that includes elected officials, broadband experts and representatives from telecommunications businesses and Internet service providers will develop a set of guidelines for how specifically federal grants will be disbursed.

Phillips hopes the guidelines will speed up the process of securing federal grant money, a process that can get bogged down by government bureaucracy.

"We are counting on that federal money to come in and us to be able to disperse it effectively and efficiently," he said.

Phillips also is optimistic the legislature will make the $42 million for rural broadband a recurring item in the annual state budget.

James Leonard, president of the Northwest Oklahoma Alliance, views broadband access as a necessity for all businesses and industries, no matter how small. The group advocates for the economic and community development in the northwest part of the state.

"Being without broadband is like being without water," Leonard said at a recent rural broadband forum.

©2021 The Oklahoman, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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