Among the legislature’s top priorities this session is an expansion of internet broadband capabilities throughout the state’s less-populated areas. On Monday, Governor Greg Abbott, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), and Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) convened in Beaumont to rally the troops behind legislation aimed at accomplishing that goal.
According to the governor, there are about 900,000 people in Texas without adequate broadband access.
“[Broadband accessibility] is no longer a luxury, it is absolutely a necessity. COVID has laid that bare.”
“We need someone in office that is pushing every day to solve this problem,” he continued.
Abbott further specified, “In order for us to reach every end-user, state and local collaboration is important. And this is not just going to be a directive from the state, it’ll be a state and local partnership.”
Phelan added, “This is about internet reliability and connectivity. Distance learning, telecommuting, and telehealth are here to stay.”
The speaker further underscored that the funding to carry out the expansion will be keyed on during the legislature. Among those options is a $2 billion request to pull from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund to get the ball rolling.
Broadband expansion was named as one of Abbott’s emergency items during his State of the State address earlier this year.
House Bill (HB) 5, authored by Ashby, would establish a Broadband Development Office (BDO) whose job it would be to map served and underserved areas across the state. “Underserved” is defined as service with download speeds of less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
The federal government already tracks this information but maps it by census block — an imprecise method. If one person within the census block had those speeds, the entire block was counted as served, even if every other person within it lacked that internet coverage.
In December of 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a mapping system based on latitudinal and longitudinal locations rather than the broader census block.
A few months before then, the FCC approved a $20 billion plan to incentivize and facilitate the expansion of coverage into rural areas.
Texas’ BDO would fit under the state Comptroller of Public Accounts’ umbrella. Ashby’s bill also tasks the BDO with separating areas into two categories for the purposes of coverage expansion: 1) an “eligible” area in which fewer than 80 percent of addresses in a specific area meet that Mbps target or 2) an “ineligible” area in which 80 percent or more addresses in an area meet that standard.
The most active aspect of the legislation is the ability placed with the BDO to award grants or loans to broadband providers who agree to install the infrastructure and maintenance necessary to expand coverage in mainly rural areas.
Generally, there are two types of areas that fit the underserved metric. The most obvious and talked about one is a rural area without enough potential clientele to make the investment profitable on the back end. The second is densely populated but consists of poor housing units, like apartment buildings, that lack the ability to pay for service that may be provided to them.
Proponents of HB 5 say the BDO will enable the state to better coordinate with, and even get out ahead of, the federal government in its efforts to expand broadband availability. In its committee hearing two weeks ago, about two-dozen individuals testified on HB 5, none of which took a stance against it.
That said, the cost of such a broad expansion will be substantial. According to industry insiders, the upfront infrastructural cost to provide rural areas with high-speed internet comes between $45,000 and $80,000 per mile. On top of that, the annual maintenance and operations cost lies between $30,000 and $40,000 per mile.
One estimate given to High Plains Pundit is that to expand service for the entirety of Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) Senate District 3, just one of the 31 senate districts in Texas, it’d cost $1.3 billion.
HB 5’s fiscal note labels the cost of the legislation as “indeterminate” because the cost of financial incentives cannot yet be quantified.
For rural areas, 5G holds some promise for bridging the digital divide, too, but also comes with roadblocks to overcome. Trees and other physical barriers can disrupt coverage.
There’s simply no easy or cheap way to expand internet coverage. Broadband expansion was already on the legislature’s agenda before coronavirus, and during the interim, over 80 Texas legislators signed a letter advocating a concerted state effort to expand broadband.
The House State Affairs Committee passed HB 5 out of its body unanimously, and the bill will now move to the floor for a vote, which, according to the speaker, will come after Easter.
Senate Bill 5 is the other chamber’s companion bill.