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Where Does 5G Fit in Texas' Upcoming State Broadband Plan?

Over 3 million households across Texas lack broadband, with the situation being particularly concerning in the western and southern segments of the state and among Latino households.

a 5G logo suspended over a digital background
Shutterstock/Alexander Supertramp
(TNS) — As schools and workplaces have switched to remote operations due to COVID-19, the gaps in access to high-speed Internet connectivity, dubbed the digital divide, have been brought front and center for many households, with coverage gaps leaving some remote students and workers offline. As 5G comes online nationwide, how will the rollout impact Texas communities, especially those currently without access to high-speed Internet?


The Federal Communications Commission's 2019 Broadband Deployment Report found 21.3 million Americans lack access to broadband. Connected Nation Texas, the Texas branch of a national public/private initiative that promotes the spread of broadband, puts the number even higher, at 24 million, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts stated.

According to the Office of Broadband Development, more than 7 million Texans in 3 million households across the state don't have high-speed Internet access. While most residents of Texas's cities can access broadband, even some larger Texas metros are without this connectivity.

According to the Texas Comptroller, western and southern Texas face larger digital divides than much of the rest of the state: In 2016, Webb County had just 22.1% of the population with high-speed Internet access, with other western counties like Kinney, Crockett, Sutton, Terrell, Loving and Crane reporting 0%. Much of the western part of the state had 25% of the population connected or lower.

In 2020, the U.S. Census found that Odessa and Laredo were among some of the least-connected markets with populations between 100,000 and 349,999. Overall, Odessa was ranked fourth-worst in the U.S. out of 120 markets with just 81.2% of homes having high-speed Internet access, and Laredo is listed at No. 14 with just 83.2% of homes having this connectivity.

Among populations of 350,000 to 999,999, Brownsville-Harlingen was ranked second-worst out of 85 markets with 77.9% of homes having high-speed Internet access, and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission is listed as No. 3 least-connected with 89.2% of homes having this connectivity.


Texas' rural areas are especially underserved, the Texas Comptroller stated in 2019. As of 2016, just 69% of rural Texans had access to high-speed Internet, with related ancillary implications for education, telemedicine, agriculture and small business; especially during the pandemic, as more schools and workplaces have moved online and the use of telemedicine has increased.

Limited broadband access can lead to a "homework gap," as the lack of home Internet access can prevent students from completing their homework once they leave school. These particular challenges were brought to the forefront during the initial switch to remote learning due to COVID-19 and subsequent surges over the last two years.

Nearly 275,000 Texas students didn't have access to enough bandwidth for digital learning in 2019, the year before the pandemic, the Classroom Connectivity Initiative found. In 2020, a report from the Texas Education Agency stated 1.8 million students in Texas, roughly 32.9% of the student population in the state at the time, didn't have Internet connectivity at home, a figure Texas Monthly reported could actually be much higher.

"Technology is no longer a luxury; it's a necessity," Amandus Derr, government affairs director of the south area for Crown Castle, the nation's largest provider of communications infrastructure, wrote in an email. "A lack of connectivity in cities and communities creates isolation and translates to a lack of access to technologies, information, and resources.

"Expanding access and broadly deploying the next generation of mobile connectivity, known as 5G, will be critical to expanding connectivity capabilities to connect underserved communities, bridge the 'digital divide' and 'homework gap,' and realize innovations that will improve lives," Derr continued.

A lack of access to broadband is more common among the Latino community, according to a poll conducted early in the pandemic, with 37% of Latino households saying they lacked broadband Internet connectivity or could only connect through their phones.

According to a report from McKinsey & Company, Latino children were the group most likely to attend school remotely during the pandemic and the least likely to have live access to a teacher, leading to a widening education gap for Latino students and other students of color.

In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Laredo, an area with a predominantly Latino population, as the least Internet-connected city in the country, with 31.8% of homes in the city lacking broadband Internet as of 2019, more than twice the national average.


Along with implications for remote work, online learning and remote Internet access at home, multiple industries could be impacted by more widespread Internet connectivity and the 5G network. That includes agriculture, infrastructure and city planning across the state.

The USDA estimated that adequate broadband infrastructure and other digital technologies in agriculture could add from $47 billion to $65 billion annually to the U.S. economy. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that of Texas's nearly 247,000 farms, 25% had no Internet access at all. In the 2020 version of the report, just 75.3% of Texas' assessed rural population had access to high-speed Internet.


Rollouts of 5G are currently taking place across the nation, as Verizon Wireless stated in early January that more than 100 million people in 1,700-plus cities around the nation would have access to its 5G network by the end of the month. In addition, AT&T has stated it is testing rollouts in markets across Texas, including Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Fort Worth, Fredericksburg, Frisco, Houston, San Antonio and Waco. AT&T expects more than 75 million people to have access to its 5G network by the end of the year.

Implementation of this infrastructure comes with no shortage of challenges as organizations look to bring 5G to new areas.

"Ultimately, the full potential of 5G requires communications infrastructure — towers, small cells and fiber—and regulatory changes from local and state governments," Derr wrote. "Without the right infrastructure and policies in place, communities in Texas won't have access to the incredible technology and benefits that 5G will bring."

The hurdles to deliver broadband Internet services are due to the time and cost it takes to install physical infrastructure to support the services, Virgilio Gonzalez, a professor of practice in the College of Engineering at the University of El Paso, wrote. Installing optical fiber cables requires digging trenches or using poles throughout the country, cities or neighborhoods.

"It is difficult for a company to justify the investment to upgrade or deploy new cables if they cannot ensure the revenue," Gonzalez wrote. "The infrastructure bill approved by Congress last year should help incentivize some carriers to expand their wired services."

While cell phone providers ultimately determine when to upgrade their coverage to 5G, municipalities play a much larger role than most understand, Derr wrote.

"Where we see local leaders embrace the benefits of technology and 5G, like Houston and Dallas for example, we see smart policies that actually encourage connectivity in their communities," Derr continued.

The newly created Texas Broadband Development Office, founded in September of 2021 after the Governor's Broadband Development Council recommended the office be created, could play an integral role in the infrastructure build out in the months ahead.

This is where Texas likely hopes the new Texas Broadband Development Office, operated by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, helps. The office was founded in September of 2021 after the Governor's Broadband Development Council recommended the office be created.

"We need to staff the office, we're currently in the process of doing that, we need to make a state broadband plan which will answer some questions, we're having a consultant come in and begin that process," Greg Conte, director of the Texas Broadband Development Office, said. "We're going to do a listening tour across the state, survey, data gathering, develop strategy, what's going on in terms of issues and how to tackle it, that needs to be finalized in June."


The office will begin looking at grant processes soon as well as projects to address digital literacy as well as the lack of broadband and related devices. A guide to the problems will be published in January 2023, Conte said, and that guide will address where the digital divide is in the state, breaking it up into designated areas that are eligible or ineligible for funding.

"I would say with confidence that there are parts of the state still facing challenges getting Internet," Conte said. "If you look at Census data, 7 million Texans don't have Internet for many reasons. We can identify where they are and what we can do to address it with our funding."

There are several programs, according to the Comptroller's office, that offer funding for community broadband projects. USDA's Rural Utilities Service offers more than $700 million annually for infrastructure loans that can be used to provide or enhance broadband services to certain communities. The USDA also provides broadband grants and loans to create private-public partnerships focused on distance learning and telemedicine.

The FCC's Connect America Fund also allocated nearly $77 million in funding to bring broadband into unserved rural homes and businesses in 89 Texas counties in 2019, according to the Comptroller. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was also approved and has made $1.2 billion available as of Jan. 28.

"We were one of the four or six states without a broadband plan," Conte said. "The federal government dinged states who didn't have a plan. We lost points in competitive federal grants programs due to not having a plan."

The U.S. Government Accountability Office says the FCC's definition of broadband Internet needs an update, which is something the Texas Broadband Development Office may have to address, Conte said.

"If the FCC changes the definition of broadband, that balloons the issue, if it broadens, we'll face a larger divide, we'll be able to identify those areas and increase the opportunities for areas to have funding," Conte said.

Conte said that the Broadband Development office is working to make it clear it has the money for funding solutions to address the digital divide through the infrastructure bill. It just needs to develop the processes.

"Stay tuned," Conte said. "We're on it, addressing the issue, having the plan up soon, we'll get grant processes up soon and a map will come up in early 2023. We're going to start rolling with it as soon as those processes are in place. We're going to target those issues aggressively."

"So much of our world increasingly depends on connectivity, and an already strained network in Texas has been pushed to the limit with the coronavirus pandemic," Derr wrote. "Businesses and families are relying on a fast, quality connection now more than ever before for work, education, and personal connections with friends and family in this socially distant world."

"Local leadership must step up and commit to infrastructure and policy that serves the needs of Texans, whether they are conducting e-commerce or navigating the challenges of remote learning," Derr continued.

©2022 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.