For most Texans, life without Internet access is unimaginable. The Internet has become embedded in every aspect of our daily lives – from streaming movies, working, running small businesses, attending virtual classrooms and taking part in telehealth visits. It has become impossible to efficiently access economic opportunity and basic resources without an Internet connection. In his February 2021 State of the State address, Governor Greg Abbott clearly articulated that "broadband access is not luxury, it is an essential tool that must be available for all Texans." He also made the expansion of broadband an emergency item during the legislative session.
Prioritization of issues related to broadband is imperative as it has become clear that leaving communities behind is not only a barrier for individuals to accessing public and private resources, but it also stifles economic development and the opportunities for communities to advance quality of life for residents. After years of advocating for digital inclusion, Connected Nation, its statewide program, Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas), and many other advocates have been clear about two persistent issues that prevent communities from maximizing the benefits of connectivity.
First, the lack of broadband infrastructure and connectivity in some communities serves as a baseline challenge that must be addressed. Second, the adoption and use of broadband, or lack thereof, in communities where access is not a barrier, must also be confronted with the same rigor.
Since its formation 20 years ago, Connected Nation has supported a comprehensive approach to tackling the issue related to broadband. In its long-storied history, Connected Nation has helped states and local communities develop comprehensive broadband plans, and assess broadband availability and adoption, while implementing programs designed to advance broadband adoption and use. Given this experience, Connected Nation and CN Texas supports the implementation of strategies that not only tackles broadband infrastructure gaps, but also ensures that ALL Texans – particularly those from disadvantaged rural and urban communities – can subscribe to the Internet and use it meaningfully.
What are the issues in Texas?
In December 2020, CN Texas released statewide broadband coverage maps that showed that more than 315,000 households in Texas were unserved by broadband service with about 28 rural counties having less than half of their households served by broadband. At the same time other studies showed that about a third of Texans were not subscribing to broadband. A 2020 study by Common Sense Media revealed that 34% or 1.8 million K-12 public school students in Texas do not have adequate access to the Internet at home. Sadly, this report showed that Texas fell behind other states in the number of kids that lacked adequate Internet connectivity at home.
Additionally, last week the Texas Black Caucus Foundation and the University of Texas Law School Civil Rights Clinic released their joint Planning for Digital Inclusion in Texas report that highlighted the need for including strategies designed to overcome barriers to adoption for those that are being left behind by the digital divide – low-income rural and urban communities, people of color, older adults and people with disabilities in the state's broadband strategy. The report provides data that supports their assertions about the digital divide and its impact on disadvantaged communities that is consistent with many other reports.
In summary, the key issues to address in Texas include:
- Bridging the infrastructure gap: addressing an issue that predominantly affects rural communities.
- Overcoming barriers to broadband adoption that are not related to availability of broadband: helping disadvantaged communities overcome barriers to broadband adoption such as affordability of service and devices and the skills gaps.
What's next for Texas?
The good news is the State of Texas is laying out the groundwork for success in developing a sound broadband strategy. The governor's Broadband Development Council released recommendations prior to the legislative session, and Texas legislators are spearheading legislation and policies that are favorable to achieving universal broadband access in Texas. This bipartisan effort, coupled with funding available via various current and upcoming federal programs, means that failure should not be an option anymore.
Another important development is the upcoming opening of a State Broadband Office. In an appearance before the State Transportation Committee CN Texas' State Program Director, Jennifer Harris, testified that "the existence of a state broadband office demonstrates the state's commitment to connectivity" and increases the state's ability to successfully increase statewide broadband coverage.
A State Broadband Office is important because it creates a platform upon which a comprehensive statewide broadband plan can be developed and implemented – and state broadband programs can be administered. This platform allows for prioritization of key issues identified by various stakeholders so that no Texans are left behind. Below are some key elements of a statewide broadband plan:
- Broadband Availability
- Data collection and mapping to identify gaps and target infrastructure investment to unserved and underserved areas.
- The state office should administer programs that help local communities advance infrastructure deployment
- Broadband Adoption
- Data collection on household adoption and use and deployment and/or promotion of programs that help households overcome adoption barriers.
- Promoting public and private programs that help communities overcome the affordability gap to broadband adoption such as the soon-to-be-launched Emergency Broadband Benefit and provider low-cost programs such as Comcast Internet Essentials, Access from AT&T, and Spectrum Internet Assist (formally Charter).
- Partnering and/or providing grants to community organizations to advance digital skills training and upskilling programs for tech jobs.
- Assisting/supporting communities in implementing technical assistance programs that allow residents to locate digital skills training, affordable connectivity and devices. The program should also provide real-time support services for navigating the Internet.
- Capacity Building – Creation of public-private partnerships to share best practices for expanding digital inclusion.
One thing is clear, doing nothing is no longer an option when it comes to bridging the digital divide.
— Heather Gate, Vice President, Digital Inclusion, Connected Nation and CN Texas
An earlier version of this column appeared on the Connected Nation blog.