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Opinion: Texas Right to Focus on Expanding Internet Access

According to a November report of the Governor's Broadband Development Council, more than 900,000 Texans don't have access to broadband at home, and getting them connected may be a rare bipartisan issue for the state.

Closeup of the Capitol building in Austin, Texas.
Shutterstock/CrackerClips Stock Media
(TNS) — Like a line server at Cleburne's Cafeteria, Gov.  Greg Abbott  offered up an array of emergency items last week appealing to a range of legislative appetites. For the red-meat lovers, he recommended that lawmakers consider two highly seasoned items: protecting "election integrity" (read: making it harder to vote) and punishing cities inclined to "defund" the police (read: Austin's reallocation of civilian duties). Both issues are actually spoiled meat. Neither are good for the body politic.

To his credit, the governor's menu also includes a healthier choice, one that has the potential to break down barriers between rural and urban Texas, revive small towns and provide education, economic and health care opportunities to thousands of Texans who prefer to live in Fort Davis and not Fort WorthHallettsville instead of Houston.

"Expanding access to high-speed internet will provide opportunities and improve the quality of life for all Texans, especially those in rural and low-income communities,"  Gov. Abbott  wrote.

He's right about that, as both Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree. In fact, investing in broadband initiatives would seem to be one of the few proposals the Legislature will consider this session that qualifies as bipartisan. If we have learned anything during the enforced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that all Texans — rural and urban, old and young, red and blue — benefit when they are connected.

According to a November report of the Governor's Broadband Development Council, more than 900,000 Texans don't have access to broadband at home. Maps from Connected Nation Texas show that, of that number, the vast majority are rural Texans, living in areas where broadband is either expensive or unavailable. Without high-speed internet, they won't be conferring with their doctor online. Without high-speed internet, kids out of school because of the pandemic won't be going to class online. Without high-speed internet, their parents won't be starting a home-based business to replace the job they lost to the pandemic.

The digital divide in Texas and across the nation is not unlike the electricity divide in the 1930s, when power companies had no incentive to build lines into sparsely populated areas. Then as now, infrastructure gets built in the cities and suburbs, not in small towns and rural areas.

For a state that ranks 38th out of 50 in broadband adoption, not only is adequate access an economic issue but so is the ability to purchase and use it. Think of all those hollowed-out little towns off the interstate. Town squares that in decades past were busy and prosperous are now deserted. Once-sturdy brick buildings that housed pharmacies, cafes, hardware stores and other local businesses are now empty, their show windows layered with dust.

The pandemic has underscored both the problem and the potential of broadband. We are beginning to see that little towns don't have to molder away. Businesses don't have to relocate to the big city. Employees don't have to be in an office; they can work from home. Texans who want to enjoy the atmosphere of a small town can do so, while farmers and ranchers can take advantage of new markets and best practices. If they are connected.

Getting all of Texas connected won't be easy, in part because it costs money, but also because it requires long-range planning. At the moment, Texas is one of six states that doesn't have a statewide plan or an office overseeing the effort.

The most promising vehicle for bringing the state up to speed is Senate Bill 506, legislation co-sponsored by state Sen.  Robert Nichols , R- Jacksonville, and state Rep.  Trent Ashby , R- Lufkin. Their bill would create a Broadband Development Office, within the state comptroller's office; create a Broadband Development Program, funded by the newly established Broadband Development Account; establish a Broadband Development Map, updated regularly; and develop a statewide broadband plan within a year of the bill becoming law.

Jennifer Harris , state program director for Connected Nation Texas, told the editorial board that the Nichols-Ashby bill is only a first step but a vital one, because it lays out a plan to find out what Texas actually needs. Without a plan similar to states further along — Harris mentioned MichiganMinnesotaNorth Carolina and Tennessee — there's no way to know how much money it's going to take to bridge the digital divide.

In the 1930s, rural Texans finally got electricity — almost a half century after their city cousins — thanks to FDR's Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Fortunately, the Biden administration seems to understand that the broadband need these days is nearly as urgent.

As a candidate, Biden promised to commit $20 billion to constructing broadband infrastructure for small towns and rural areas. He also committed to tripling the amount of money available to local governments, organizations, corporations and other entities as an incentive to wire rural areas. If the new administration is able to follow through on its commitment, and if Texas lawmakers respond with similar urgency, the state will begin to bridge its debilitating digital divide.

In an interview with Texas Public Radio aired Sept. 2019, the CEO of Bandera Electric Cooperative on the western edge of the Hill Country explained why his organization was expanding internet access for its customers. "You're not doing this to make money,"  Bill Hetherington  said. "You're doing this to allow your communities to survive and be here 20 years from now."

Hetherington could be speaking for every small town in Texas. If they were connected.

(c)2021 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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