Rural Broadband Advocates Upbeat After Session That Saw No Cash
Three of the five bills dealing with expanding broadband in Texas are either waiting on the governor’s desk or are already in effect. The results have proponents optimistic.
The 86th legislature filed more than 7,300 bills between the two houses, so getting excited about five on one topic may be absurd. But when it comes to broadband, community leaders and advocates have been waiting a long time to see it gain steam.
“We’re finally seeing some. I don’t know if it’s light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re finally getting to the tunnel,” said David Cleveland, executive director of the East Texas Council of Governments, a 14-county wide swath of Texas.
“Clearly the education is getting through and now it’s a matter of momentum going behind this,” he said.
As Texas Public Radio previously reported, the five bills represented the largest legislative push to connect the 1.8 million residents lacking access in Texas history. Broadband advocates often talk about the issue the way people talked about electrification in the 1930s and say their communities education, health and economic development all suffer from lacking access.
There is an avalanche of need gaining strength from businesses in rural Texas said Cleveland, and rural communities are in it rather than ahead of it.
“Those rural areas that can keep up are way ahead of the game,” he said.
The bills that passed — House Bills 1960, 2422, and Senate Bill 14 — created a governor’s council filled with stakeholders, coordinated road projects with internet providers, and reformed how electric coops got permission to use easements they already have electrical running on for fiber-optic cable.
“We were very encouraged by the actions that the legislature took this session to capture some of the low hanging fruit,” said Tim Morstad, associate state director of advocacy for AARP Texas.
AARP wants to ensure rural Texans over 50 continue to have access to friends and family through technology, as social isolation has health impacts, as well as access to a doctor as more hospitals rural hospitals close and healthcare delivery may shift to telehealth.
“I see it as a win for high-level coordination that’s going to pay dividends going forward,” he said of the Governor’s council, which AARP is likely to have a seat on. The hope is the council will better prepare the state for federal grants.
Both the US Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission have large pockets of money for rural broadband expansion.
Morstad called the bills that passed “common-sense” bills, that gave the issue a home in the governor’s office as well as created ways to make it cheaper for providers to expand. The other thing the bills all had in common, was there was no money attached to them.
Bills that didn’t pass, HB 2423 and HB 669 both had price tags attached. One would reapportion funds from mandated consumer fees to rural broadband projects and the other would have created an office within a state agency to coordinate grants and create state project funds.
“It’s always a challenge to get an appropriation out of the Texas legislature,” said Morstad.
State lawmakers are trying to maintain a balance of wanting a robust broadband service — and treating it like a utility — with keeping a hands-off approach and hoping reducing hurdles is enough to get internet providers to pick up the slack.
“We know that this is a long-term game to try and push out broadband especially in rural Texas, and over time it’s going to cost a lot of money,” said Morstad putting the number in the hundreds of millions.
He, like many others, sees the small victories of this session as a stepping stone to the 2021 legislative session.
“I think they see it’s a real issue now. It’s just a matter— at the state level— that it needs to gather more momentum,” said Cleveland. “I think by the next legislative session I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some funding that is associated with one or two of these bills.”