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Unconventional Wisdom – April 15, 2022
Unconventional Wisdom – April 15, 2022
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The idea that internet access is a luxury was demolished before anyone ever heard of COVID-19. But the pandemic — and the demands of switching work, school and medicine from face-to-face to virtual experiences — made it impossible for state officials to ignore.
The good news is that the Texas legislature took it seriously and set up an office to figure out how to expand access to and affordability of high-speed broadband as funding becomes available, starting with $500 million in federal pandemic aid.
The bad news is that it will take at least a year for the state to make a real difference in getting broadband access for Texans who don’t have it and lowering the price for people who can’t afford Internet service available to them.
The federal and state governments are working on the broadband problem, but governments can be slower than dial-up internet. And while they’re working on it, it will likely take until next year around this time to see results.
The holes in the grid left Texas, like other states, exposed during the pandemic, and the holes were apparent even before COVID-19. Pharr, Brownsville, Tyler, Harlingen and Beaumont were ranked in the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s 20 worst connected cities in the US in 2019 – the most recent year. Texas has more rural schools than any other state, and large areas of rural Texas have spotty internet, if at all. Urban Texas often has broadband access that many residents can’t afford – a real problem if that’s the only way to attend classes or go to work.
The bulk of the money for broadband expansion in Texas will come from the federal government, and most of that — an undetermined amount — is part of the federal infrastructure bill passed in November, after Texas legislators announced their plans. regular and special sessions had ended. Some adjustments to keep that flow of money will likely come from the legislature itself, which will not meet until January 2023.
In the meantime, the state has access to $500 million in federal money through COVID-19-related grants; most of it will be available by the end of this year, according to Jennifer Harris, the Texas program director for Connected Nation, a nonprofit that promotes broadband adoption, access and use statewide. Harris is also Vice Chair of the Governor’s Broadband Development Council.
Lawmakers have assigned broadband to state comptroller Glenn Hegar, who has traveled across the state collecting public comments on broadband access and affordability, as well as online feedback. His office maps out available broadband areas in the state and will likely be the office that funnels federal money coming into Texas to eligible places.
His broadband development office will release a report in mid-June, paving the way for broadband expansion, said Greg Conte, its director. Later in the year they will have a detailed map of the state – property by property – to show where expansion is needed. Conte, Harris and others say the state won’t know how much money they’re getting until federal officials compile maps of all the states.
Each state will receive a minimum of $100 million in federal infrastructure funding for broadband, and then a portion of another $42.5 billion will be distributed based on maps of each state. The experts’ wild estimates are that Texas will get $1 billion to $4 billion. Those maps are like the ones Hegar is working on, Harris said in a phone call that broke apart two or three times as she drove through one of the thinnest and least connected parts of western Texas. The conversation was a quick reminder of what it’s like to do business where communication technology is scarce.
That other pot of federal money — $500 million in pandemic aid to be awarded on a project-by-project basis at the end of this year — will be available by the end of this year. Also, low-income Texans who have access to broadband services they can’t afford can already take advantage of another federal program that pays up to $30 a month for services.
The delays are frustrating, but state officials are working on it, spending money on it and trying to fix something that isn’t right. If only they could meet more often.
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