As rural broadband bill passes Texas House, local internet survey needs answers

FAR WEST TEXAS –– The Texas House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this month that lays the groundwork for providing more rural households in Texas with access to the internet. As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, only 68 percent of Texans have residential broadband, a rate lagging behind the national average of around 71 percent.   

Co-authored by state Rep. Eddie Morales, the bill will set up the Broadband Development Office within the Office of the Comptroller. In addition to coordinating with federal, state and private programs to secure funding, the Broadband Development Office will identify key areas where broadband is needed the most. The Rio Grande Council of Governments, or Rio Grande COG, is already undertaking a local survey to get that same kind of granular data on who has access to reliable internet. 

Peggy O’Brien, who is spearheading the local initiative, said, “We are trying to get to everyone who is not connected, or just get what their connectivity is.” As of now, there is no data on how many homes in the tri-county region are without internet.

If you haven’t already, be sure to fill out the questionnaire here: 

For Presidio County residents:

For Brewster County residents:

For Jeff Davis County residents:

For those without internet access, call Peggy O’Brien at 915-588-1375 to take the survey over the phone. Residents can also take the survey in Spanish at the number above.

Residents are encouraged to fill out as many of the questionnaires as are relevant to them. For example, they should fill out one for their home and one for their business. With over 480 responses so far, the group has reached 38 percent of its goal. The deadline is Memorial Day weekend. 

Once the survey is complete, Rio Grande COG will hand off the data to Connected Nation, a nonprofit focused on improving internet access nationwide, which will develop a plan to close the digital divide. 

Rio Grande COG hopes to seek money from governmental funds like those being proposed in Morales’ “Broadband Infrastructure Bill,”  which is just one of several broadband-expansion bills making their way through the Texas Legislature. Another one, House Bill 425, aims to subsidize internet providers that extend their service into underserved rural areas. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers have taken note of how necessary it is for Texans to have access to reliable internet. Governor Greg Abbott listed broadband expansion as a priority in this legislative session. In a press release for his broadband bill, Morales emphasised the challenges families lacking adequate broadband have faced over the past year. 

“Whether connecting students to teachers or patients to doctors, Texans everywhere will be better served by expanding access to broadband. All 12 of the counties in House District 74 have rural areas and this bill is especially impactful for those constituents,” said Morales. 

 O’Brien drove home that point. Without the internet, residents are “not connected to so many resources,” she said. “From purchasing, education, medicine, employment opportunities –– people can’t go online to apply for a job, get food stamps, the list is infinite.” 

The proposed bill is now in front of the Senate for consideration.