Electric Co-ops Deliver (Again) for Rural Texas

In the 1930s, when the big power companies didn't want to come to rural Texas, local communities formed electric cooperatives to provide electricity and pull the rural economy out of the Great Depression. Today, as COVID-19 hits our rural economy again, electric cooperatives are poised to do what cable and telecom companies don't want to do – provide rural Texans with access to high-speed broadband and support their local communities.

  When Bandera Electric Cooperative surveyed its members several years ago, their top concern was lack of Internet access. This communications shortfall prevented economic growth and damaged long-term financial stability in our region. Years back, I witnessed firsthand the consequences of broadband deficiencies on my drive to work where kids stood outside the library in Bandera, waiting to access the computer to do their homework.

  With our members' feedback in mind, our team developed a business model that would improve the electric grid's resiliency, security, and efficiency while also providing our members access to high-speed Internet. BEC made affordable, high-speed broadband service part of our business core.

  Sen. Robert Nichols authored SB 14 in 2019, creating broadband expansion opportunities that allowed BEC and other electric cooperatives to accelerate getting broadband to underserved areas in rural Texas. SB 14 passed by an overwhelming majority due to the efforts of Nichols, Rep. John Kuempel, House and Senate leaders, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed this landmark bill into law.

  SB 14 marks a pivotal first step, and we are optimistic that state leaders will continue to close the urban vs. rural gaps through smart policy changes.

  Last year, Comptroller Glenn Hegar released a report that estimated the economic impact of broadband access on rural businesses was $6.657 billion in sales and 23,433 jobs, which will add $3.76 billion to the state. The Comptroller released these statistics well before the coronavirus, which made broadband indispensable to daily life.

  Already, the law is paying dividends for our communities at a time when they need it most. The law directly resulted in Bandera Electric Cooperative's fiber broadband subscriber base doubling since its signing. This critical policy change allows thousands more to participate actively in our digital economy.

  SB 14's intent to remove barriers to expanding broadband capacity seems prescient in hindsight. This year, we grappled with disruptive changes to how we work and educate as a result of COVID-19. Reliable, fast Internet speeds are not simply Nice To Have's for streaming movies and music. Instead, broadband capacity is now essential to our job market and how we teach our children. SB 14 leveled the playing field and is closing the urban vs. rural digital divide.

  Every other year, our state lawmakers head to Austin when the Legislature convenes. Citizens across the state hope they will adhere to Sam Houston's philosophy to "do right and risk the consequences." Our leaders got it right with SB 14. Rural communities owe you a debt of gratitude.

  The next step to closing the digital divide is within reach. With the help of rural communities and their stakeholders, Texas must develop a statewide approach to broadband. Texas must identify policy barriers and break them down. Let's tap into federal resources to create a plan, and let's execute it.

  The state's COVID-19 response demonstrates what it can do to aid its citizens from bureaucratic obstacles. Gov. Abbott eliminated significant red tape in everything from licensure to getting a margarita to-go. Let's take the same approach to close the digital divide and get Texas back to work.

  Bill Hetherington is a resident of Kendall County and is the CEO of Bandera Electric Cooperative.
Posted Thursday, October 1, 2020