$500 Million on Broadband Expansion in Texas at Public Meeting in Waco | Local News
Broadband service remains just a rumor for about 3 million Texans, most living in rural areas, which is why State Comptroller Glenn Hegar visited Waco on Monday to hear comments on the reduction of the digital divide.
Hegar and his team will visit 12 communities during their April road show, and locations are scattered throughout the state to ease travel burdens.
But some of the 75 attendees at the Waco show apparently took nothing for granted. They came from Amarillo, Texas Hill Country and Upshur County, for example, talking about spending $500 million in federal funds to ensure reliable high-speed internet access across the state.
Suggestions ranged from treating broadband service as a public utility, essentially making its presence mandatory, and working with the Texas Department of Transportation to include conduit installation in freeway projects.
Not having broadband has become unacceptable, said Greg Conte, who heads the Texas Broadband Development Office, a situation brought home during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything from school learning to doctor visits to business meetings, relied on broadband access.
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With this in mind, the Texas Legislature has tasked the Comptroller’s Office to work with the new Texas Broadband Development Office to seek input from statewide stakeholders, including elected officials, broadband service provider leaders, concerned citizens and advocates.
Texas should have a broadband plan in place later this year, Hegar said in an interview after public comment time. This proposed approach must reach the US Treasury by September 26 of this year, and a federal directive states that all money must be spent by December 31, 2026.
Texas is set to receive $500 million of $9.8 billion in U.S. bailout funds, but could get at least another $100 million from the Investment Act’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program and l jobs in infrastructure, according to a fact sheet released by the comptroller’s office.
According to the fact sheet, Texas’ total allocation is not yet known, and “other allocations will be determined by new Federal Communications Commission maps,” available later this year.
Hegar and his team underlined the importance of partnerships in the fight against the digital divide, cooperation between the public and private sectors.
“We’ve talked about how important broadband is to economic development, and it is, but this initiative goes way beyond that,” said Matt Meadors, president of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. “We are talking about public access. It’s an intense time and the response from the community is so important. I can’t imagine not having access to it, but almost 10% of Texans don’t have access to it.
Hegar said opinions may differ on spending pandemic relief funds on broadband, but Texas needs to research what’s available.
The Texas Broadband Development Office is expected by early October to have a process in place to accept applications and issue financial awards. It will provide grants, low-interest loans and other incentives “to internet service providers who expand access in eligible areas,” the BDO fact sheet says.
Several speakers during Monday’s presentation urged the BDO and the Comptroller’s Office to remain vigilant in holding attendees accountable.
Linda Timmerman, representing the silver-haired Texas Legislature, suggested increased efforts to train older residents to use the internet. She said working with the 28 divisions of the Regional Agency on Aging in Texas would be a good start. She said the students could serve as tutors.
“I’ve been involved in teaching 90 people during the pandemic, completely virtually. It can be tough,” Timmerman said. “I wish I had a dime for every time I had to say, ‘Say tell me what’s on your computer screen right now.”
Charlie Cano, managing director of Gilmer-based Etex Communications, urged state leaders not to underestimate the role libraries and library systems have played in providing high-speed access to underserved areas.
“I urge you to study the work of providers who are ahead of the game, who know how to find the gaps and fill them,” Cano said.
Neal Silvers, owner of Backroads Broadband in Corsicana, said Navarro County is eligible for pandemic-related federal funding and that because his company provides services to 80% of the county, he believes he would be eligible for federal assistance. He said he would like to work with the Navarro County commissioners, but feels they are concerned about how best to spend federal money and may question his company’s eligibility.
He wondered if the BDO could help educate government entities.
Later, without specifically addressing Silvers’ issue, Hegar said the Texas Broadband Development Office was unable to recommend a vendor at this point, although it will be accepting applications beginning in October.
Chris Bryan, director of communications and information services with the Texas Comptroller’s Office, said the listening tour was eye-opening. He said a McDonald’s restaurant in Cuero became a WiFi hub during the pandemic, where students gathered to view homework.
He said a concern frequently raised at the meetings was access, or lack of access, to medical information and medical consultations in remote areas.
Broadband providers, Bryan said, have urged the enactment of standards that would apply to communities across the state.