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Texas Aims at ‘Generational Opportunity’ to Grow Rural Internet

Federal and state officials are embarking on an ambitious partnership to bring broadband Internet access to all corners of the state, drawing from part of a $65 billion fund passed by Congress this fall.

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(TNS) — Texas is about to be on the receiving end of what experts say is the most expensive effort ever to give more people high-speed internet at home.

It’s going to be a big test of all levels of government.

Federal and state officials are embarking on an ambitious partnership to bring broadband internet access to all corners of the state, drawing from part of a $65 billion fund passed by Congress this fall as part of an infrastructure law signed by President Joe Biden.

Texas, according to experts, is likely to receive as much money for the expansion as any state, given its vast rural geography where high-speed internet is often the hardest to find. If done right, experts say it could transform the rural parts of the state, giving residents a chance to participate in the modern digital economy, visit doctors online, and even enjoy streaming home entertainment — an upgrade some liken in importance to rural electrification efforts nearly a century ago.

But the coming infusion of cash is also creating a massive logistical challenge for government officials expected to implement the plan, challenging their ability to coordinate with each other and stave off political feuds that could derail the project.

“If we blow it and other states blow it, if the nation doesn’t do this right, this might be the only chance we have with this quantity of funds,” said Robert Wood, who runs special projects at the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and is deeply involved with the state’s effort to expand broadband internet access.

Wood called the money earmarked for the expansion a “generational opportunity” but one that comes with a “multitude of challenges.”

One group, Connected Nation Texas, estimates that about 820,000 Texans don’t have access to high-speed internet. Those people are primarily concentrated in West Texas, the Panhandle, and parts of the Rio Grande Valley, the type of sparsely populated rural areas where internet service providers have determined broadband internet doesn’t make economic sense for their companies.

Both in Texas and nationwide, the federal investment in expanding broadband is the “most significant funding push in U.S. history,” said Tyler Cooper, the Dallas-based editor in chief of BroadbandNow, which covers the social and economic impact of broadband internet.

“I do anticipate there will be a lot of growing pains along the way,” Cooper said. “But this could be transformative for a lot of those areas.”

Broadband part of infrastructure law

The broadband investment is part of an broader $1.2 trillion infrastructure law that funds the repair of roads and bridges, replaces lead water pipes, and upgrades the electrical grid, among other initiatives.

Of the $65 billion the law provides to expand broadband access, $14 billion is earmarked to help low-income families pay for high-speed internet. The federal government is providing another $42.5 billion for the physical expansion of the broadband network in states.

Senior U.S. officials say that the law is designed to let states take the lead, allowing them to design individualized plans to expand broadband in their states that they then take to the federal government to receive funding.

“States know best,” said Kevin Gallagher, senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, which is overseeing the broadband expansion nationwide. “States are best positioned to know which parts of their states are areas that are going to need service, and identifying those early and having conversations around what’s the right way to help that community is important.”

Commerce Department officials say they’re pleased that Texas this year created a Broadband Development Office, which should lead all implementation and coordinating efforts within the state.

Texas was one of the few states in the nation that didn’t have a comprehensive plan or agency designed to handle broadband expansion, Wood said.

But that office also has only one full-time employee right now, Wood added, with plans to bring on two additional employees in January. And it is still trying to process money allocated to it by another federal law, the American Rescue Plan signed in March, before even ramping up efforts to apply for grant money from the infrastructure law.

Wood says he’s excited about the state’s chance to expand broadband — he wants this moment to be remembered by his grandchildren in the same way his generation remembers the men and women who brought electricity to rural areas — but is mindful of the pressure the state is under to get it right.

“One thing is, and it’s not a criticism, but I think the thing that I worry a little bit about is that there’s going to be a lot of pressure to get money out fast, and fast is not always good,” Wood said. “Again, this is money we hope shapes our nation for the next however many decades.”

Will Texas apply for federal funding?

The federal government has not yet begun doling out the bulk of the money for the expansion, waiting first for the Federal Communications Commission to issue new maps detailing which areas lack access to broadband internet. Before the new maps are even issued, however, the federal government will put out a notice of funding opportunity on May 16, 2022, outlining what requirements states must meet to apply for funds.

Federal law will require, however, that Texas and other states first expand high-speed internet to areas that lack any access to it.

Beyond the logistical challenges, however, some officials worry that politics could endanger the federal and state partnership.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday sent a letter to state agency leaders to “review all provisions” of the infrastructure law before applying for any grant money.

“Should the acceptance of any federal funds hinder or needlessly constrain the state, commit the state to ongoing costs for which there is not an appropriation available, or require an agency to implement a federal policy contrary to the law or policy of this state, the agreement proposed by the federal agency should not be signed,” Abbott wrote in the letter.

In a statement, Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said the governor is committed to expanding broadband access across the state and is confident that Comptroller Glenn Hegar and federal officials will work effectively together.

But Democratic Rep. Colin Allred said the letter worried him, concerned it indicated the state wouldn’t be as eager to apply for as much federal funding as it could or would be hesitant to promote programs like one designed to lower internet costs for low-income families.

“This is a program that really needs to be administered by the state,” Allred said. “And for it to be successful, it’s going to need full buy-in from the state.”

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