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, Gov. Greg Abbott 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.
Prioritizing 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.
What are the issues in Texas?
In December 2020, CN Texas released statewide broadband coverage maps that showed more than 315,000 households in Texas did not have broadband service — less than half of homes in roughly 28 rural counties. At the same time, other studies showed that about a third of Texans were not subscribing to broadband. A study by Common Sense Media revealed that, in 2020, 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 who lacked adequate internet connectivity at home.
Additionally, the Texas Black Caucus Foundation and The University of Texas Law School Civil Rights Clinic released a joint report, Planning for Digital Inclusion in Texas, which highlights those being left behind by the digital divide — low-income rural and urban communities, people of color, older adults, and people with disabilities.
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, which will create a platform to develop, implement, and administer a comprehensive statewide broadband plan. Below are some key elements.
- 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
- Data Collection on household adoption, 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 low-cost provider 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 program for tech jobs.
- Assisting/supporting communities in implementing technical assistance programs that allow residents to locate digital skills training, affordable connectivity, real-time support services, and devices.
- 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. An important lesson learned from COVID-19 is that we have work to do. Images of children sitting on the sidewalk outside coffee shops and fast-food restaurants in order to access the free Wi-Fi for virtual school were daunting and indicative of the challenges experienced by those on the wrong side of the divide.
We must ensure broadband infrastructure is universally available in Texas to ensure we eliminate barriers for all Texans to adopt high-speed internet — this includes rural and urban, low-income households; school-aged children; older adults; black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) households; and people with disabilities.
We must not accept that Texas is the leader in the number of children on the wrong side of the digital divide.