Texas will spend billions to connect the state with broadband. But is it clear which neighborhoods need help?

LUBBOCK The bright blue dots in Floydada on the Texas Broadband Development Map indicate that it is primarily connected to the World Wide Web.

A tour of the small town in the High Plains reveals that there is much to be desired.

In the city itself, we have decent coverage, explained Ryan Crowe, executive director of Floydada Economic Development Corp. But it looks like it comes just outside the city and is about to collapse into thin air.

Crowe isn’t the only one questioning the accuracy of the state’s broadband map. Since it was released earlier this year, Texans across the state have disagreed with the findings, saying they don’t have a service where the map says they do. There have also been questions about the federal broadband map, which will be used to determine how much broadband funding each state will receive under the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021.

There’s no way Floydada is as covered as it says, it just can’t be, Crowe said as he looked at the recently updated FCC map.

Last month, Texas lawmakers approved a landmark bill, introduced by Lufkin Rep. Trent Ashby, that allocates $1.5 billion to expand statewide Internet availability through the new Broadband Infrastructure Fund. If approved by voters in November, that money will be added to an undetermined amount of federal dollars the state will receive. This assignment should be announced by 30 June.

Those funds will be distributed based on where broadband maps show service is needed, which is mainly in rural areas where lack of funding has essentially stalled development progress. However, more than 2,200 challenges to the state map have been filed, according to data submitted to the state comptroller’s office.

With billions of dollars at stake and 7 million Texans needing to be connected, broadband providers and local officials are concerned about how far that money can be spent and whether it will go to the places that need it most.

There is a lack of understanding about what the solution will be in rural areas, said CharlieCano, CEO of Etex Telephone Cooperative. The problem will be ongoing support and maintenance.

The amount approved by the Texas Legislature is substantially less than the $5 billion initially proposed by Ashby at the start of the session. Ashby proposed using money from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, known as the rainy day fund. However, during negotiations between lawmakers, the legislature agreed to use the state’s general operating fund, which placed a limit on the amount of money that could be used for broadband.

Given the reliance on general revenue to fund our states’ existing obligations, we needed to be as conservative as possible with state resources, Ashby said in an emailed statement. That said, I’m pleased that we were able to commit $1.5 billion in state funds to help expand broadband and telecom services across the state.

However, connecting the entire state will take a lot of time and more money than approved in this session, particularly due to nationwide supply chain and labor shortages. That’s according to Texas Comptroller GlennHegar, who also oversees the Broadband Development Office, set up during the regular 2021 legislative session.

This is a 10-year project, in my view, so this will be an ongoing process to connect the state, Hegar told the Tribune. It’s really impossible to get all of this done, with all the Internet providers we’re going to be working with, to make it happen in a two-year window for the next two years.

The legislature passed a bill in this session that would force the Broadband Development Office to prioritize infrastructure projects that use fiber technology. Fiber can provide significantly higher speeds than DSL or satellite, but setting up the necessary infrastructure is expensive and may be unattainable in rural areas.

The reality is that you will spend all your money very quickly if that’s what you do, Hegar said. So you need to have a backup plan or drop down menu.

Senate Bill 1238 allows the state to consider alternative technologies in high-cost areas. Hegar pointed out that having alternatives to fiber could help expand availability in areas where fiber may not be a good fit.

Kelty Garbee, executive director of Texas Rural Funders, said that while exceptional funds and resources are now available, the mindset is to use them wisely.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase broadband access, Garbee said. We hope the Office of Broadband Development uses its data and mapping tools to develop a grant process that provides these resources to areas of the state that are least likely to receive broadband without the additional support.

Garbee also said the funds would have a greater impact in areas with little or no broadband service. One of those places is Floydada. The town of about 2,700 is widely referred to as the Pumpkin Capital of Texas due to its thriving pumpkin crop. The same cannot be said for broadband service in the city or the entirety of Floyd County.

It’s the times you don’t have it that you notice it the most, Crowe said. We have to think of broadband as any utility, it’s like water or electricity. This is how you communicate, it’s no longer a luxury.

Crowe said the map makes that clear: The region known as the Texas Triangle, which includes Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, is mostly connected. Most of the areas needing services are outside the triangle.

There are very large pockets of red, so more needs to be done, Crowe said, referring to the red dots on the map that show unrelated communities. There aren’t many of us out here, but those of us who need to have access.

According to the latest map from the Federal Communications Committee, 8.3 million households and businesses nationwide do not have access to high-speed Internet. About 9% of these are in Texas. The new map added an additional 330,000 unserved locations, including 23,500 in Texas.

Those additional locations are an improvement, Texans say, but federal and state maps have yet to be reviewed. The speed data comes directly from Internet service providers and some question the accuracy of this data.

I continue to doubt the speeds they claim to be able to deliver, Cano said. We’re in the wooded parts of East Texas where it really degrades signals through the trees.

The FCC continues to accept map challenges and will release another map in the spring, according to a statement from FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. The state is also continuing to review the thousands of challenges to its map that have been filed.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Accounts Comptroller has been a financial supporter of the Texas Tribune, a non-profit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no role in Tribune reporting. Find a complete list of them here.

#Texas #spend #billions #connect #state #broadband #clear #neighborhoods

Leave a Comment