As Texas faces internet battles on horizon, partnership aims to map connectivity in tri-county

Not long ago, “policymakers viewed broadband as a luxury,” one advocate said. "Now, especially with the pandemic, we’ve seen it’s truly critical infrastructure.”

FAR WEST TEXAS — Texans lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to who has quality internet in their homes. Only around 68% of Texans have residential “broadband,” the term for internet connections with at least 25 megabit-per-second download speeds. That’s behind 33 other states and D.C., and below the national average of around 71%. On top of that, Texas is one of only a handful states without an office dedicated to improving high-speed internet for residents.

“We don’t have a state broadband office,” said Jennifer Harris, the state director for Connected Nation, a nonprofit group that studies and advocates for improved internet access. “There’s no state plan. There’s no grant program.” While other states spend millions on internet infrastructure each year, Texas, she says, spends zero.

As the 2021 Texas legislative session continues, Harris is part of a group of advocates who are pushing to change that. On Tuesday, Harris met virtually with local leaders, including those with the Rio Grande Council of Governments and the Tri-County Broadband Alliance, to talk about improving internet connectivity in the Big Bend.

One of their top goals is a new survey, which aims to provide a “down-to-the-mailbox” map of who has reliable and affordable internet and who doesn’t. The surveys, which are broken down for each of the three counties, are available online at https://www.myconnectedcommunity.org/presidio-county/ for Presidio County residents, https://www.myconnectedcommunity.org/brewster-county/ for Brewster County residents and https://www.myconnectedcommunity.org/jeff-davis-county/ for Jeff Davis County residents.

At the meeting on Tuesday, advocates say they’re also working on getting paper-copy surveys available to those who don’t have internet at all.

Like school funding in 2019 and immigration in 2017, internet access and connectivity look to be a major part of the 2021 Texas legislative session. Governor Greg Abbott has named broadband access as an emergency item for this session. At the meeting, advocates said their survey would help state policymakers and businesses get a sense of internet needs in the Big Bend, and would also show that there’s money to be made in these investments.

The survey comes as Texas faces problems for the future of its telecommunications network, particularly in sparsely populated areas. Faced with falling funds, the Texas Universal Service Fund in January cut subsidies for companies working to install and maintain telecommunications infrastructure across the state by more than 50%. In response, around 50 companies, including BBT, sued the state’s Public Utility Commission, arguing regulators weren’t doing their job to ensure the fund stayed solvent.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has students and employees across the state working from home — proving, advocates say, that quality internet is a necessity for modern Texans.

“The pandemic has definitely highlighted the importance,” Harris said. “It’s pretty evident to most people if they don’t have the speeds to do video calls.”

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, advocates with Connected Nation, including community tech advisor Stu Johnson, defined broadband and explained why it’s important to residents and businesses.

While measurements of megabit speeds may not mean much to people, broadband is the basic internet connection necessary to participate in many everyday online activities, Johnson explained. Broadband connections can handle 3-5 internet-connected devices without issues. It’s fast enough for video calls and is fast enough to service online-facing businesses. For some perspective, a typical broadband connection can download a two-gigabyte file in about 11 minutes. That’s roughly the file size of a medium-quality feature-length film.

Johnson also outlined some of the many ways that broadband connections can improve people’s economic outcomes. Each household broadband connection, he said, is worth around $1800 in value. That’s because, in the 21st century, internet connections can be used for basically everything. Broadband can “reduce household expenses” by allowing people to shop online, attend telemedicine appointments or work from home — saving workers an average of about $500 a year in fuel and car-maintenance expenses, Johnson said. It allows businesses to process transactions and better handle social media accounts. Quality internet is so important to modern life, he explained, that just giving a home access to a broadband plan can raise home values by more than 3%.

As a nonpartisan group, Connected Nation has “no opinion” on how Texas gets to a point where all Texans have access to broadband, Johnson said. But the group was nonetheless dedicated to helping Texans get “adequate, affordable and reliable [broadband] service,” including by collecting data on which communities are serviced by broadband and which are not.

Not long ago, “policymakers viewed broadband as a luxury,” he said. But “now, especially with the pandemic, we’ve seen it’s truly critical infrastructure.”

Other advocates at the meeting highlighted what improved internet connectivity would mean not only for the tri-county, but across the state. Robert Halpern, a member of the Tri-County Broadband Alliance and a workforce and economic development specialist at the Rio Grande Council of Governments, said that rural Texans accounted for around 90% of all state residents who didn’t have broadband access.

“That’s us,” Halpern said. The pandemic, he noted, had “revealed gaps in our digital connectivity out here,” with students at area schools sometimes relying on “hotspots and other access points” just to do basic schoolwork.

Harris, the Texas state director, said Texas was lagging behind other states when it comes to improving internet connectivity for residents.

“Puerto Rico has a state broadband plan,” she joked, “and they’re not even a state.” It was “past time,” she said, for Texas to develop the same.

The reduction in subsidies for telecommunications infrastructure doesn’t just hurt consumers; it also hurts companies that rely on those funds for projects, said Rusty Moore, the general manager and chief operating officer for BBT, a company that provides such services in West Texas.

BBT is doing okay for now, Moore said. “We run pretty lean.” But he said the subsidy cuts are already having impacts on other smaller businesses across the state, which are having to halt projects and hiring. And if the Texas Universal Service Fund doesn’t become more solvent, “you’ve got a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

One reason for the fund, he said, is to “keep our rates in parity with our metropolitan neighbors.” In big cities like San Antonio, telecom providers might have thousands of customers per square mile. BBT, on the other hand, has .25.

“It takes four square miles to make one person,” Moore said the company’s customer base, which is spread out through the remote Texas borderlands. Without subsidies to help get service to far-flung areas, some rural customers could be saddled with internet bills three times higher than they are now.

This isn’t just about internet, Moore stressed. The telecommunications networks in rural areas also service devices like cell phones. But with only certain types of customers paying into Texas Universal Service Fund — most notably, those with landlines — the fund isn’t seeing the cashflow it did in the past. That’s one major reason why it’s going broke, and why companies like BBT are suing to demand state regulators keep it solvent.

Ideally, Moore said, all telecommunications users would pay into the fund. But in the meantime, BBT saw little option but a lawsuit.

“It was the last thing we wanted to do, filing suit against the [Public Utilities Commission],” Moore said. “We’ve always had such a good relationship with them.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Johnson, the community tech advisor, showed a map from Bastrop County, demonstrating the reliability of people’s internet connections. The map was color-coded for complaints like “speed is too slow,” “price is too high” or “data caps limit my ability to use the internet.”

The goal of this tri-county survey is to provide similar data for the Big Bend. Connected Nation hopes to complete the survey by May, Johnson said, before organizing the data over the summer. Then, the group hopes to have a final “action plan” by August or September, which it can present to lawmakers and businesses.

At the end of the meeting, advocates discussed ways to make sure as many locals as possible took the survey — including paper-copy versions for people with no internet at all. But with residents in the tri-county spread over vast and mountainous terrain, just contacting some residents at all could be a challenge.

Peggy O’Brien, the local governments manager for the Rio Grande COG, compared the challenges to those faced by local officials while working on the 2020 Census. “It’s like the state of Rhode Island, [in terms of] the mileage,” she said. There were ranches in Jeff Davis County that were “30 miles from the gate.”