“Texas will spend billions to connect the state with broadband. But is it clear which neighborhoods need help?” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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LUBBOCK — The bright blue spots in Floydada on the Texas Broadband Development Map indicate that it is mostly connected to the World Wide Web.
A drive around the small town in the High Plains reveals there is much to be desired.
“In the city itself, we have decent coverage,” explained Ryan Crowe, executive director for the Floydada Economic Development Corp. “But it seems like you get right outside of the city and it’s going to drop off to nothing.”
Crowe is not the only one who questions the accuracy of the state’s broadband map. Since it was released earlier this year, Texans from across the state have disagreed with the results, saying they don’t have service where the map says they do. There have been doubts over the federal broadband map as well, which will be used to determine how much broadband funding each state will receive from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021.
“There’s no way Floydada is as covered as it says it is, it just can’t be,” Crowe said as he looked over the recently updated FCC map.
Last month, Texas lawmakers passed a momentous bill, filed by Lufkin Rep. Trent Ashby, that allocates $1.5 billion to expand internet availability across the state through the new Broadband Infrastructure Fund. If approved by voters in November, that money will be added to an undetermined amount of federal dollars the state will receive. That allocation is slated to be announced by June 30.
Those funds will be distributed based on where the broadband maps show service is needed, which is primarily in rural areas where a lack of funds has essentially halted progress in development. However, there have been more than 2,200 challenges filed to the state’s map, according to data submitted to the state comptroller’s office.
With billions of dollars on the line and 7 million Texans needing to be connected, broadband service providers and local officials are worried about how far that money can be stretched and whether it will go to the places that need it most.
“There’s a lack of understanding on what the solution is going to be in the rural areas,” said Charlie Cano, CEO of Etex Telephone Cooperative. “The problem is going to be ongoing support and maintenance.”
The amount approved by the Texas Legislature is substantially lower than the $5 billion Ashby initially proposed at the start of the session. Ashby proposed using money from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, known as the rainy day fund. However, during negotiations among lawmakers, the Legislature decided to use the state’s general operating fund, which put a limit on how much money could be used for broadband.
“Given the reliance on General Revenue to fund our state’s existing obligations, we needed to be as conservative as possible with state resources,” Ashby said in an emailed statement. “That said, I’m pleased that we were able to dedicate $1.5 billion in state funds to help expand broadband and telecommunications services across the state.”
Connecting the entire state is going to take both a lot of time and more money than what was approved this session, however, particularly because of supply chain and labor shortages nationwide. This is according to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who also oversees the Broadband Development Office, established during the 2021 regular legislative session.
“This is a 10-year-window project, in my opinion, so this will be an ongoing process to get the state connected,” Hegar told the Tribune. “It’s really impossible to get all of this done, with all the internet providers we will be working with, to get it accomplished in a two-year window for the next biennium.”
The Legislature passed a bill this session that would force the Broadband Development Office to prioritize infrastructure projects that use fiber technology. Fiber can deliver speeds that are significantly higher than DSL or satellite, but laying the infrastructure for it is costly and may be unattainable in rural areas.
“The reality is that you’re going to spend all your money really fast if that’s what you do,” Hegar said. “So you’ve got to have a backup plan or drop-down menu.”
Senate Bill 1238 does allow the state to consider alternative technologies in high-cost areas. Hegar stressed that having alternatives to fiber could help expand availability in areas where fiber may not be suitable.
Kelty Garbee, executive director for Texas Rural Funders, said while there are “exceptional” resources and funds available now, the mindset is to use it wisely.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase access to broadband,” Garbee said. “We hope the Broadband Development Office will use its data and mapping tools to develop a grant process that provides those resources to areas of the state that are least likely to receive broadband without the extra support.”
Garbee also said the funds would have a greater impact in areas with little to no broadband service. One of those places is Floydada. The small town of about 2,700 is widely referred to as the Pumpkin Capital of Texas because of its flourishing pumpkin crop. The same can’t be said for broadband service in the town, or for Floyd County as a whole.
“It’s the times that you don’t have it that you notice it the most,” Crowe said. “We need to think of broadband like we do any utility, it’s the same as water or electricity. This is how you communicate, it’s no longer a luxury.”
Crowe said the map makes it clear: The region known as the Texas Triangle, which includes Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, is mostly connected. Most of the areas needing service exist outside of the triangle.
“There’s very large pockets of red, so more has to be done,” Crowe said, referring to red dots on the map that show unconnected communities. “There’s not many of us out here, but those of us who are need to have access.”
According to the latest Federal Communications Committee map, 8.3 million households and businesses nationwide lack access to high-speed internet. About 9% of those are in Texas. The new map added 330,000 more unserved locations, including 23,500 in Texas.
Those additional locations are an improvement, Texans say, but the federal and state maps still face scrutiny. Speed data comes directly from internet service providers, and some question the accuracy of that data.
“I still question the speeds they are claiming to be able to deliver,” Cano said. “We are in the wooded parts of East Texas where it really degrades the signals through the trees.”
The FCC continues to accept map challenges and will release another map in the spring, according to a statement from FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. The state is also continuing to review the thousands of challenges to its map that have been submitted.
Disclosure: The Texas comptroller of public accounts has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/09/texas-broadband-investment-maps/.
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