In many parts of rural Texas, broadband Internet access is hard to come by – connections are unreliable and slow, and service often costs more than it does in more densely populated parts of the state. Last week, the Texas Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 5, a measure that aims to expand the state’s broadband infrastructure. The bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott included on his emergency agenda for this legislative session, now moves to the House. The bills would put planning and mapping tools in place as a starting point for expanding broadband.
Robert Scott is a founder of the Texas Rural Broadband Coalition and a former commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. He told Texas Standard that while broadband access in rural areas is often poor, there are “rural and urban deserts” that experience problems.
Texas is one of six states that does not have a broadband access plan. Among other things, the measures before the Legislature would create one. SB 5 also establishes a broadband development office that would be affiliated with the University of Texas System and mandates the creation of a broadband map of Texas, indicating areas where less than 80% of residents have high-speed Internet access.
A development program would award grants and loans to organizations who want to build new projects, and the bill creates a fund to receive money from the state and/or federal government to pay for them.
“Both Senate Bill 5 and House Bill 5 are incredibly important steps to addressing this issue,” Scott said.
The proposal doesn’t directly fund broadband projects. The Biden administration has included $100 million for broadband access in its $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. If the bill were passed, Texas’ broadband efforts could benefit, especially if a state broadband plan is in place.
“I believe there will be funding, and we just need to make sure that we have the appropriate plan and resources in place to make this happen,” Scott said.
Scott says getting better Internet to underserved areas will require using a variety of technologies, from fiber-based broadband connections to satellite wi-fi.
“We recognize that we’re going to be doing an all-of-the-above approach with… lines on poles, lines in the ground and satellite, until such time as we can get [more broadband,]” Scott said.
Rockport, where Scott lives, is part of a group working to build a fiber backbone that will reach from Rockport to Nueces County, where Corpus Christi is located.
“Initially that will link up emergency services – health, police, etc. – but then other providers and carriers can link off of that backbone, and you can do the last mile, which will service residences,” he said.
Scott says the Senate and House bills go a long way toward solving the broadband problem in Texas.
“It establishes a baseline state-level policy plan, and infrastructure, that when we receive federal funds, and the state appropriates funds, and the private sector can get engaged, it will allow us to solve the problem,” he said.