Broadband is a necessity

The pandemic made it brutally clear: access to broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. For those with internet access, life went on. For those without, students fell further behind, the elderly avoided doctor visits, small businesses were unable to stay connected with their customers.

Leading up to the legislative session, I joined 87 other legislators in bi-partisan letter to Governor Abbott requesting a statewide broadband plan.

The governor responded by placing broadband expansion as an emergency item for this legislature. That aligned with the report from The Governor’s Broadband Development Council that stated, “The issue of broadband connectivity in the state’s rural and unserved areas is vital to economic development, education, health care, and safety in Texas.”

The digital divide is nothing new. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that at least 1.2 million Texans cannot access broadband internet service. Almost 65 percent of those without access live in our rural communities.

The lack of connectivity wasn’t only affecting education and healthcare, it was hindering economic growth.

With a gross domestic product of $1.9 billion, Texas has the ninth largest economy in the world. In 2019, a study by Amazon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that Texas could gain a $3.7 billion boost to GDP from statewide broadband. Certain federal funding programs award priority points for a state broadband plan when considering applications. Texas is one of only six states that does not have a statewide broadband plan.

Broadband will still be critical to help school districts address the dramatic learning gaps expected when schools begin the fall semester. TEA estimates that between the pandemic and the normal summer slide, students lost 5.7 months of instructional time for the 2019-2020 school year. As we return to in-person learning, we need programs to ensure that no student is left behind academically or emotionally.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree on the importance of expanding broadband to rural areas and low-income communities. It is a vital part of our recovery. Everyone sees that –– the federal government, the governor, and the Texas Legislature.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes a significant amount of funding that Texas can leverage to address critical issues like digital connectivity. Texas was allocated about $15.8 billion in Coronavirus State and Local Recovery Funds. That money can be used to make necessary investments to expand access to broadband internet.

The members of the Texas legislature filed a number of the bills that address broadband expansion. I’m proud to co-author Senate Bill 5, authored by Senator Robert Nichols, and to co-sponsor House Bill 5. This legislation for a statewide broadband plan establishes a Broadband Development Program to award grants, low-interest loans and financial incentives to expand broadband.

The Texas Senate and House will work out the few differences and hammer out the final details before the legislature adjourns sine die. When the bill is finally passed, it will be an important step to ensuring improved educational opportunities, increased access to healthcare, and that rural and urban communities alike are positioned to propel Texas’ economic comeback from the pandemic, creating prosperity for all Texans for generations to come.

Senator César J. Blanco proudly represents the people of Culberson, El Paso, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties in the Texas Senate.