According to the group Connected Nation, an estimated 926,000 Texans do not have physical access to broadband at home. Over eighty-nine percent of these disconnected Texans live in rural areas. Broadly, this is a matter of equity and economic participation, both of which bear on overall well-being in our state. This is especially true during this pandemic, where remote work, school, and health have become the norm. Jennifer Harris serves as the state program director for Connected Nation Texas. She also serves on the Governors Broadband Development Council. Wynn Rosser is CEO of the Temple Foundation, which is dedicated to increasing prosperity and well-being for rural deep East Texas. Both join us on this episode to discuss rural broadband and its pivotal role in the future well-being of Texas.
Texas Lacks Physical Infrastructure and Subscribers
When it comes to broadband access, the first essential component is physical infrastructure. “As far as that physical access question, we’ve got over 300,000 homes in Texas, which equates to almost a million Texans, that don’t have physical access to broadband,” explains Harris. “Broadband, in its simplest form, is high speed Internet.” Even if those nearly one million disconnected Texans wanted to subscribe to high-speed Internet, the lack of physical access would be a barrier.
As for subscribing to broadband when it is available, Texas is doing even worse. Only sixty-eight percent of Texas homes are subscribing to broadband right now – putting us at 35th among all states and territories in the U.S. “Not only do we have a physical infrastructure issue that we need to work on,” says Harris, “but we also have an adoption issue that we need to work on in the state of Texas.” In fact, out of the entire United States, studies have shown that four of the top five least connected cities in the nation, as far as subscribing to broadband, are in Texas.
In rural East Texas, broadband has long been a regional priority. Rosser tells us that half of the zip codes within the twelve counties that make up the Deep East Texas Council of Governments (DETCOG) do not have access to broadband. “This is something we were really active on even before the pandemic,” Rosser says. “It’s one of those quality-of-life things. It’s another example of how rural people are left behind, and it’s just a lack of investment and infrastructure.”
Strategies for Achieving Connectivity in Rural Texas
One of the primary areas of focus for broadband advocates like Connected Nation Texas involves collecting and improving data about broadband usage across the state of Texas, through a process called broadband mapping. By gathering accurate and precise information about where broadband is geographically available and how it is being used, communities are able to better advocate for themselves and state leaders are better able to make decisions for their constituents. In some cases, this data helps build better business cases for providers based on demand that they may not have known was there.
“For what was once considered a luxury, the last eight months have convinced almost everyone that broadband is a necessity,” states Rosser. “Broadband is 21st century infrastructure. It’s not about streaming videos. it’s not about shopping. It’s about school. It’s about telehealth. It’s about economic development.”
Rosser says that last spring, when the pandemic forced schools to transition to online learning, some of the rural schools in the areas where he works were unable to deliver any new content to their students for months. “It’s 21st century infrastructure. We deserve that as a state,” Rosser argues. “If we are going to participate fully in this 21st century economy and 21st century democracy, we have to have 21st century infrastructure to go along with it.”