It should be noted that the assessment was conducted during the global COVID-19 pandemic. This worldwide event likely impacted many of the metrics included in this assessment.
This project was funded by the Economic Development Administration (EDA) Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Fixed broadband is delivered to a user via several technology platforms including cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) over phone lines, fiber optics, and fixed wireless. Fixed broadband is designed for stationary use at a fixed location such as a home, business, or institution. From one location, however, fixed broadband service is often broadcast as a Wi-Fi network to connect nearby devices.
The following map shows where broadband is available in the community.
Establish enhanced broadband access for Orange County residents and businesses by developing partnerships with local providers, taking advantage of federal and state funding as it becomes available, and developing a local broadband committee.
Action 1 – Establish a broadband committee to oversee broadband information, deployment, and communication with providers and the community.
Orange County has a well-established Economic Development Corporation that was founded in 2003. The EDC is a natural fit to host a broadband team or committee overseen by Jessica Hill, Executive Director. Charging the local committee with specific duties will help ensure long-term success. The broadband team should have representation from all community sectors:
- Health Care: Local physicians or hospital staff from Baptist Orange Hospital, Golden Triangle Emergency Center-Orange, and Orange County Urgent Care
- Government: County Judge, County Commissioners, Mayors, City Councils, County IT Director
- K-12 Education and Higher Education: Bridge City ISD, Little Cypress-Mauriceville CISD, Orangefield ISD, Vidor ISD, West Orange-Cove CISD
- Public Safety: Orange County Sheriff’s Department, police departments, emergency management, and others
- Libraries and Community Organizations: Bridge City Public Library, Orange Public Library, and Vidor Public Library; Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation; Greater Orange Area Chamber, and others
- Agriculture: County Agriculture Extension Agent Fallon Foster, leading agricultural producers
- Community at Large: A resident who is interested in furthering the broadband agenda of Orange County
Action 1A – Determine the long-term responsibilities of the broadband committee. Tasking the committee with specific duties will help ensure long-term success. Duties should include:
- Deploying requests for quotes (RFQs) for services needed in Orange County related to broadband deployment and maintenance of owned broadband assets.
- Providing monthly updates to Economic Development Director, Jessica Hill, and the Commissioners Court regarding activities surrounding broadband.
- Establishing relationships with current providers and open communication with potential providers.
- Monitoring federal and state funding opportunities by attending workshops, webinars, meetings, and general training that discuss broadband specifically and telecommunications generally. This will ensure Orange County is prepared to take advantage of funding sources as they become available.
- Providing digital literacy and digital skills assistance to the community’s at-risk populations.
- Ensuring digital engagement in Orange County across all community sectors (telehealth, telework, online learning, Wi-Fi in businesses, etc.).
- Establishing a relationship with Orange County’s U.S. Congressman Brian Babin and his staff, who oversee broadband grants, subsidies, and loans available from the federal government. In addition, establishing relationships with state legislators to work together on broadband needs in Orange County. The current State Senator is Robert Nichols, and the current State Representative is Dade Phelan, Speaker of the Texas House.
Action 1B – Monitor state and national broadband policy. The broadband committee should remain informed and up to date on any publications, events, and policy briefs published by the Governor’s Broadband Development Council (GBDC) and the Broadband Development Office (BDO). The local committee should consider the objectives laid out by the BDO for Texas’ broadband efforts, which can help align local priorities in a way that is complementary to those of the state.
Action 1C – Stay current on funding opportunities. The federal government continues to release new opportunities for funding at a rapid pace. The Texas Broadband Development Office is not far behind. Understanding how Orange County can benefit from the funding programs and how leaders can be prepared to apply for them is key to the build-out and digital equity of broadband for all.
Funding sources include:
- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
- A minimum of $100 million will be allocated to the state of Texas. The state is responsible for developing and distributing these funds.
- Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds
- The U.S. Treasury Department issued its Final Rule on January 6, 2022, expanding the use of funds for broadband.
- Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CPF)
- Under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the CPF provides $10 billion to eligible governments to carry out critical capital projects that directly enable work, education, and health monitoring. The Texas State Legislature appropriated all the funding from the CPF for broadband purposes. The Broadband Development Office (BDO) plans to stand up a competitive grant process to support local broadband projects around the state. More information can be found on the BDO’s website (linked below). A recent publication found here can help answer questions about the CPF.
Action 1D – Identify a grant writer to support the process and ensure opportunities are not missed. Grant application windows are short and review processes competitive, making it essential for communities to have smart, well-written applications with supporting data ready to go. Should a grant opportunity be identified, Orange County should work with a reliable and trusted grant writer who can accurately capture the needs and wants of Orange County residents, businesses, and community leaders in writing. A regional solution could be helpful. The South East Texas Regional Planning Commission (SETRPC) supports Hardin, Jefferson, Jasper, and Orange counties, and a regional grant writer could be housed under this organization.
Action 2 – Establish a relationship with all local providers. Orange County should arrange meetings with all internet service providers (ISPs) that offer service in the county to discuss plans for future expansion and associated costs. This includes the three Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) winners. Providers are more likely to engage in a community that is easy to work with as a partner. Removing red tape can speed up broadband deployment and attract new providers. Although RDOF will help, it will not eliminate the barriers for additional providers to close the Digital Divide and provide competition.
Connected Nation can provide a list of questions to ask ISPs to better understand their offerings. RDOF phase 1 winners and amounts follow:
- Charter Communications: $1,156,683
- LTD Broadband LLC: $347,574
- Windstream Services LLC, Debtor-In-Possession: $32,238
All identified internet providers currently in Orange County:
- Charter Communications (Spectrum)
- En-Touch Systems Inc. (Astound Broadband)
- Cable One Inc. (Sparklight)
Action 3 – Explore public-private partnerships between Orange County and internet providers. The advantage of P3 partnerships is that each party brings something important to the relationship that the other doesn’t have or can’t easily acquire. Orange County can offer assets (publicly owned building rooftops, light poles, towers, and other vertical assets for mounting infrastructure) for the deployment of a network, as well as committed anchor tenants, and possible funding sources. Private-sector partners bring network-building and operations experience.
Examine models of partnerships:
Model 1: Private Investment, Public Facilitation: Make available public assets, share geographic information, systems data, and streamline permitting and inspection processes. Offer economic development incentives to attract private broadband investment.
Model 2: Private Execution, Public Funding: Identify revenue streams that can be directed to a private partner. Funding may include appropriated payments from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds established by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, and Reconnect Loan and Grant Program, Emergency Connectivity Fund, and several others here. New streams of revenue are becoming available from the FCC and/or state government.
Model 3: Shared Investment and Risk: Evaluate using assets to attract private investment, evaluate funding new assets to attract private investment, and evaluate building new broadband assets for businesses and/or homes for leasing to private ISPs.
Action 4 – Understand key legal considerations and critical elements for localities looking to build a broadband partnership. Hiring a knowledgeable and nonaffiliated legal consultant can help Orange County sort through what agreements, partnerships, and arrangements will or will not work in their county. This expertise can also assist the county with ways that they may make it easier for service expansions, while helping protect the integrity of current laws and regulations.
Action 5 – Review and update local telecommunications policies and ordinances. Through the broadband committee, the county should review and update ordinances and policies to minimize any barriers to broadband deployment and help facilitate faster broadband buildout in the county. Barriers may include unfair or burdensome rights-of-way negotiation and approval processes, deployment moratoria, leasing of pole attachments, and excessive fees for permits and other costs.
Action 6 – Establish a central webpage for all broadband development resources including vendor information and electronic forms on the Orange County Economic Development website. Developing a central website to support internet service providers on how to conduct business in the community can remove barriers and streamline processes. Include regulations that vendors must follow such as “dig-once policies.” A dig-once policy can require the county to coordinate with public or private contractors to install fiber or conduit whenever the ground is broken on a public right-of-way.
The County Judge, Commissioners, and Economic Development Director would be responsible for establishing the broadband committee and approving P3 contracts. Feedback from broadband providers, businesses, residents, and anchor institutions would be valuable.
A broadband committee should be organized within three months of this plan. The first duty of the organized broadband team should be meeting with providers and discussing partnerships, where applicable.
Increase internet adoption rates in Orange County. Although providers with RDOF money will connect a large portion of the unconnected areas, this will not address the adoption rates throughout the county. The CN Texas survey reports that 14.3% of respondents do not subscribe to internet services. This percentage is in line with the U.S. Census Bureau, which states that 13.8% of Orange County households do not subscribe.
Action 1 – Determine why the adoption rates are low across the county. The survey highlights cost as one factor. The average price that Orange County residents reported paying for broadband is $80.76 a month, whereas in other communities where CN Texas has performed technology assessments the average cost is $77.76.
Action 2 – Promote and share information about programs that help residents overcome the affordability barrier to broadband adoption. The county should work with community leaders and institutions to publicly promote programs and opportunities designed to reduce the cost of broadband service. This can be done by sending notices in water bills, posting in the newspaper or monthly school newsletters, through discussions at Commissioners Court and City Hall meetings, or advertisements at frequently visited community buildings and businesses.
Below are some programs and resources that are available to residents:
- Locate affordable internet service or computers: Using online resources, Orange County residents can identify local and national providers who offer special, low-cost services for vulnerable populations, older adults, and low-income families with children. Such resources include EveryoneOn, which helps residents locate low-cost internet services and affordable computers by ZIP code and need, based on their participation in assistance programs.
- Low-cost internet services offered by providers: In Orange County, AT&T offers the Access from AT&T program for $10 per month or less based on the maximum speed available at the subscriber’s address, with speeds up to 25Mbps. Charter Spectrum also offers discount broadband if at least one person in the household is a member of the SSI (Supplemental Security Income) program and is over 65 years of age. This is subject to household eligibility and service availability at a specific address.
- State and federal low-cost programs: There are two critical programs* that offer discounts for broadband to eligible households.
- Lifeline is a federal assistance program run by the Public Utility Commission of Texas that provides a discount to qualifying low-income customers who subscribe to voice telephone service or broadband internet access service. The Lifeline discount for qualifying low-income customers may be up to $12.75 ($3.50 state discount and $9.25 federal Lifeline discount.) depending on the services a resident subscribes to and the customer’s eligibility. Lifeline service is non-transferable and is limited to one discount per household.
- The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB) was created during the COVID-19 pandemic to help families and households that were struggling to afford internet service. On December 31, 2021, it was replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides a $30 a month credit toward internet coverage ($75 a month for qualifying residents on tribal lands) and up to $100 for the purchase of a device. Households qualify based on income or participation in federal or tribal assistance programs. To receive the connected device discount, consumers must enroll in the ACP with a participating provider that offers connected devices. The providers offering ACP discounts in Orange County include some providers listed on the CN Texas service map: AT&T, Spectrum (Charter Communications), Sparklight (Cable-One), En-Touch Systems (Astound), and T-Mobile. For a full list of all providers offering this service, go here.
*The programs and prices are subject to change over time.
The broadband director, broadband committee, and the county and cities’ IT directors should coordinate to include important information on their websites. The County Judge and Commissioners should set local telecommunication policies, with input from the broadband director or broadband committee. The county broadband director or committee should meet with local providers to discuss their service offerings.
The broadband director should notify residents immediately of available discount programs. The broadband committee and/or director should meet with providers within the first three months of acceptance of this plan.
Increase internet speeds throughout the county to run modern-day applications.
Orange County, like its neighbors, needs to increase internet speeds to run modern-day applications. The county needs more accurate information to understand advertised speeds versus actual speeds. Most of the information that is currently available was gathered from the FCC Form 477, which can be unreliable when trying to assess how many households truly have access to advertised speeds.
Action 1 – Orange County has hired CN Texas to assess the existing capacity for connectivity throughout the county. Outcomes include performing the necessary testing, data collection, and mapping to develop a complete broadband assessment of the county. CN Texas will integrate data gathered through the assessment and provide a report of findings to the county. Finally, CN Texas will implement strategy and recommendations in collaboration with county leaders
Action 2 – To begin addressing slow internet speeds, the broadband committee, in partnership with community leadership, should meet with internet service providers (ISPs) in the community. This includes meeting with those providers who have been allocated funding through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). It is important to know and understand where new or improved infrastructure is being built around the county and how it will affect broadband speeds and delivery to residents.
When meeting with providers, the broadband team should address the survey results, highlighting the need for affordable, reliable, and fast service. Providers need to understand the consumer base in order to provide the best customer service experience. Poor customer service can discourage people from subscribing to broadband. The survey illustrates that 48.1% of households say their internet service does not meet their needs, while 74.1% of businesses say their internet needs are not being met.
Action 3 – Advise businesses, residents, and public safety entities on how to test their speeds to determine if advertised speeds match the actual speeds. Present the results of these tests to providers to make sure subscribers are receiving stated services.
The broadband committee, Economic Development Director, County Judge, and providers.
Meetings with providers should be scheduled as soon as the committee is established.
Make Wi-Fi access available throughout Orange County to ensure that all residents have access to the internet.
Survey participants report that 17.2% of businesses allow free Wi-Fi for their patrons and 23.1% of K-12 schools offer free Wi-Fi. These percentages are below other counties surveyed by CN Texas. By promoting and increasing the number of businesses and local organizations that offer Wi-Fi, the county can expand opportunities for residents to connect. This is important because not all households can maintain and/or afford the level of internet access they may need.
Action 1 – Make public Wi-Fi locations available throughout Orange County. The broadband committee should document and promote an inventory of public Wi-Fi locations in the community, focusing on institutions that are frequented by residents. This can be done by working with the community anchor institutions, such as the public libraries, to identify the number of Wi-Fi hotspots and public computers available. Additionally, compiling community hotspot availability in public places, such as parks and other recreational centers, and developing plans to create hotspots in areas where people attend recreational activities, such as tourist attractions, can significantly expand public access.
Action 2 – Convene community anchor institutions such as libraries, community centers, and senior centers that host public computing centers to discuss their important role in providing open, public internet access to residents in downtown areas or other public spaces. This is a simple, straightforward way to encourage the community to participate in bridging the Digital Divide. Other opportunities may exist with religious facilities, schools, local government offices, RV parks, restaurants or various social service providers that offer services in English, Vietnamese, and Spanish.
Action 3 – Improve the online presence of libraries in Orange County. Libraries should use social media more frequently, distribute electronic surveys asking residents what broadband needs they may have, develop instructional videos for upload to YouTube, and livestream library events. Increasing the libraries’ presence in the community will help promote digital literacy and help residents become more comfortable with receiving information via the internet.
Libraries in Orange County include Bridge City Public Library, Orange Public Library, and Vidor Public Library. Each library has a website, and some list the hours Wi-Fi is available, but there are no listings of available digital learning programs. Several open sources to teach digital learning could be added to the libraries’ services and are listed under resources at the bottom of this goal.
The broadband director, broadband committee, and librarians should meet and discuss a strategy to increase the presence of libraries in Orange County. The broadband director and the broadband committee should meet with chambers of commerce, churches, community organizations, and others to discuss how they increase Wi-Fi availability in Orange County.
An inventory of library offerings should be performed within three months of acceptance of this plan.
Improve digital literacy for all Orange County residents by developing strategies for enhancing the offerings of digital literacy programs.
Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information. It requires both cognitive and technical skills. A lack of digital skills can create a wider gap between those with access to the internet and those without. In the CN Texas survey, Orange County residents give themselves high marks for digital literacy.
Action 1 – Identify regional and community partners who possess resources and expertise in producing free digital literacy and digital skills workshops. This may include the chambers of commerce (Greater Orange Area COC, Vidor COC, or Bridge City COC). The American Red Cross has a significant presence in Orange County and works closely with leadership due to the weather disasters the Texas gulf region often experiences. The American Red Cross offers training and certification courses in Orange County and could be an ideal partner for offering digital literacy courses. It is critical that residents know how to use the internet during emergencies, including telehealth resources. The American Red Cross could host digital skills programs, provide volunteers to teach the courses, and be able to reach those who are most in need.
Action 2 – Implement digital literacy and digital skills workshops in the community, with an emphasis on social media and website skills/training, to ensure all residents and community leaders can access and use digital devices and services. Websites and social media are an integral component of modern communication and real-time updates. For government entities, public safety institutions, K-12 schools, community organizations, and businesses, an online presence is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Furthermore, community workshops should strive to ensure community officials and leaders have the digital know-how and confidence to engage online.
Action 3 – Consider applying for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) grant to train digital navigators in rural communities. Libraries, as well as other anchor institutions, could be a natural fit for this grant. The grant will support the hiring of a community-based digital navigator along with programmatic and technical support.
Action 4 – Offer online digital literacy skills in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese to attract more patrons to the libraries. The U.S. Census Bureau states that 93% of Orange County residents speak English, but a small population also speaks Spanish and Vietnamese in the area. Many online open resources in these languages can be added to the libraries’ services to allow patrons to learn and improve their internet skills. Several open sources are listed under resources at the bottom of this goal.
The broadband committee and librarians should work together to offer anyone who needs a digital learning course access to resources. Other community businesses, nonprofit organizations, for-profit organizations, and providers should offer free courses in digital learning when they can.
Strategy workshops should begin as soon as this plan is accepted.
Three organizations that offer digital literacy in English and Spanish: