More than a million Texans living in rural areas face a potential threat to phone and internet access. Last month, the state drastically cut subsidies that help providers offer phone and internet services in sparsely populated regions of the state. Some of those providers have filed suit to reverse the cuts in funding. Gov. Greg Abbott has also signaled the importance of expanding rural access to communications, declaring broadband access in rural areas as an emergency item during his State of the State address on Monday.
Rep. James White (R-Hillister) represents District 19 in the Texas House. The district covers several counties in rural East Texas. He told Texas Standard that rural telephone co-ops rely on funding from the Universal Service Fund, or USF. The money comes from fees assessed on telephone bills, and those fees are drying up as more and more people give up landlines in favor of cell phones.
“With the expansion of internet and broadband and voice over internet, that assessment is not applied to these other ways that we communicate,” White said.
White says the pandemic points out the need for strengthened communications services, including broadband, which is often delivered by phone providers.
Solving the funding crunch for rural phone and internet providers requires a combination of steps, White says.
“We need to make sure that we have an agency, or someone in government, that’s accountable,” he said.
In Texas, the USF is overseen by the Texas Public Utility Commission. White suggests that could continue, or it could be moved to a different entity within state government. And adding to the funding stream is important, too, he says.
“If we want to continue the USF, we need to make sure it’s not an assessment on a narrow group of customers,” he said.
White also stressed the importance of working with federal officials. The USF is a federal fund, administered by states. He says he’s spoken to his area’s members of Congress and to officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“This idea of rural broadband is not just a Texas rural issue; it’s a national rural issue,” White said.