Texas Legislature Poised For Biggest Broadband Push In State History But Still Catching Up

Photo by: Ryan Poppe | Texas Public Radio

1.8 million Texans lack broadband Internet access, and most of them live in rural Texas. Studies from the U.S. chamber and others have shown the massive impact connecting Texas could have. This is part one of a multi-part series focusing on Connecting Rural Texas.

Unlike cities, rural areas rarely have public right of ways. So today a rural electric cooperative trying to provide broadband has to go back to each property owner where the co-op already owns poles strung with electrical cabling to ask if they can string broadband fiber-optic cable.

The process is costly and time consuming. In rural Texas, large swaths of the land are ranches. Those ranches become large gaps in deploying fiber, and owners can be hard to find.

“They don’t even live here. They live in Washington State or Utah or wherever, said Bill Hetherington, CEO of Bandera Electric Cooperative.

"They don’t have any interest in signing over rights for me to cross their property to provide service to the people who live here,” he said.

But a bill that passed Tuesday and is heading to the governor’s desk would change that. It allows co-ops to announce their intent to deliver broadband and hang fiber cable, giving hard-to-reach property owners 60 days to opt-out.

“This is the snowbird solution,” said Hetherington

Senate Bill 14 is the first bill Texas’ passed on rural broadband internet in more than a decade and one of a handful of similar legislation moving towards confirmation. If they pass, it will be the most broadband bills in Texas history. But they have to pass in the next two weeks. The remaining four have all made it through at least one chamber of the legislature.

The bills would create a governor’s council, create a commission and grant program , coordinate efforts with state agencies like TXDOT  and open funding for rural projects.

SB 14 author Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican, attributed the legislative push to lawmakers responding to the lack of service in rural Texas at a time when economic development, education and access to health services have never before relied so heavily on access.

“Because there is such a pent-up need. You’re dealing with 20 to 25 percent of the population of the state but you’re dealing with 70 percent of the geography, maybe even 80—and they don’t have it,” he said.

House Bill 2423, which would create a broadband office within the public utility, was written because the federal government continues to talk about funding these projects. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission have budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I think the stars are aligned on the both the state level and the national level,” said Charles “Doc” Anderson, a North Texas Republican and the bill’s author. “We want to be able to capitalize on those funds that will be made available in the near future.”

Despite the progress in many ways Texas is playing catch up. Thirty-four states already have broadband commissions, and some have set aside funding. New York State set aside $500 million in 2015 to expand broadband.

“I think Texas is behind,” said Jordana Barton, a senior researcher for the Federal Reserve who focuses on internet access. “I think the new proposal to have a broadband council and the other bills mentioned are progress but many states have had broadband councils. So we are behind, and we are in a special place in history.”

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Posted Tuesday, May 14, 2019