AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas is one step closer to expanding broadband access after Senate Bill 5 unanimously passed on the Texas Senate floor Wednesday.
It lays out solutions to connectivity issues in both urban and rural parts of the state, which have been highlighted during the pandemic.
The author, Republican State Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, went over the main components of the bill before the vote Thursday.
“First, it creates a broadband development office that is administratively attached to the University of Texas System governed by an 11-member board of advisors,” Nichols said. The board must include at least one urban member and two rural members.
“The bill directs the office to create a broadband map for the state, utilizing new data released by the FCC and specifically identifies those areas of the state with less than 80% of addresses having access to broadband,” Nichols continued, adding current Federal Communications Commission data does not accurately reflect connectivity in the state.
“The bill directs the office to establish a broadband development program to award grants, low-interest loans and other financial incentives to expand access to and adoption of broadband,” Nichols said. “And, it creates an account comprised of any available federal and state money for this purpose.”
The bill also directs the office to create a state broadband plan outlining long-term goals, as Texas is one of only six states in the country that does not have a plan.
Rural broadband advocates like Robert Scott, former commissioner of the Texas Education Agency and a founder of the Texas Rural Broadband Coalition, have been pushing for this improvement for years.
“They call it ‘the last mile,’ whether it’s a natural gas line or a phone line or an internet connection, where I live, it is three miles to my mailbox. So it’s not just the last mile, it’s the last three miles,” Scott said, pointing to his direct experience with lack of access in Rockport.
“Think about it. Like the rural electrification in the early 1900s. That was a huge undertaking, but we did it,” Scott said over an interview via satellite Wi-Fi on Thursday.
But, Scott realizes it’s not unique to rural areas. “It’s an urban issue as well,” he said, an issue that’s been made evident throughout the past year.
That’s why Nichols included affordability measures in the bill.
“Although the infrastructure may be there for those children, and Houston or the Metroplex, it doesn’t mean they can afford it or their families can afford it,” Nichols said.
Preliminary data gathered by the Texas Education Agency’s Operation Connectivity illustrates the importance of cost to close the digital divide.
“We believe there are about 1.7 million economically disadvantaged students across the state, that are, have access to infrastructure, but have not been able to adopt it for a variety of reasons. And then there’s somewhere in the range of 700,000 students that are in that unserved and underserved category,” Gaby Rowe, director of the project, explained Thursday, adding those numbers will not be finalized for a few months.
She said affordability, however, is not just limited to urban areas, and lack of infrastructure is not solely in rural areas.
“They apply to every single community and community type across the state. They are not more heavily weighted to one particular geographic area in the state; they are spread across the state,” Rowe explained.
The bill now heads to the Texas House.