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Broadband providers were awarded over $360 million through RDOF to connect Texas homes and businesses. This is what that means for the state.

Austin, TX (December 14, 2020) - What is the RDOF?
RDOF stands for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created in 2019 to bring high-speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses where it does not exist. More than $20 billion was put into RDOF and will be awarded to broadband providers through a two-part reverse auction designed to reward those that can deliver the highest speeds at the lowest costs.

The first phase began in October and was awarded in December 2020. Phase I targeted over 6 million homes and businesses in census blocks without broadband download speeds of at least 25 Mbps. Phase II will cover locations in census blocks that are partially served and locations not funded in the initial Phase I.

How will the program help Texas?
On Dec. 7, 2020 it was announced that $362.3 has been allocated to broadband providers to expand coverage to 310,962 unserved homes and businesses in 220 Texas counties over the next 10 years. The “over the next 10 years” part is key. Though this money is much appreciated and will help lessen the Digital Divide, these dollars are not an overnight solution.

Broadband providers will be required to have 40% of the locations they bid on served by the end of the third year of support, with an additional 20% required by the end of the fourth and fifth years of support. By the end of year six, revised location totals will be announced.

That means that some locations that were initially bid on may still not have service until the end of year six, and any additional locations identified at that time may not get service until the end of year eight!

With the understanding that these dollars aren’t an immediate fix, what can communities do?
It’s critical that local communities continue to plan and advocate for themselves and their residents. Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas), through the support of the Texas Rural Funders (TRF), is working directly with 27 rural communities so they can advocate for themselves and partner with providers in a coordinated way that includes stakeholder involvement from every sector of the community. CN Texas encourages other communities to engage in this same type of planning so they can work alongside providers to go after future dollars.

What can the state do to support communities in their ongoing connectivity efforts?
As recommended by the Governor’s Broadband Development Council, the state of Texas should create and endorse a state broadband plan. Texas is one of only six states in the country that has yet to do so. Though an endorsed plan will likely help in leveraging federal dollars, the planning process itself will help Texas address the Digital Divide. Through comprehensive data analysis and stakeholder engagement during a planning process, public policy ideas — many of which can be acted upon immediately — will come to light. And once a state broadband plan is completed, it will serve as a written reflection of the data and stakeholder needs, outline connectivity goals  and priorities, and serve as a benchmark upon which to measure whether public policy initiatives are working.

This plan can be implemented through a state broadband office, another recommendation of the Governor’s Broadband Development Council. Staff who are focused on broadband and the plan can create accountability and provide stakeholders with a point of contact. Broadband office staff can provide a neutral voice when educating policymakers and community leaders and play a central role in facilitating coordination and the building of partnerships to advance broadband projects and policies.

What else? Adoption…
So far, the focus has been on physical access and the locations the RDOF dollars will help to connect. But there’s another major issue driving the Digital Divide in Texas: adoption. What does adoption mean? It means there is access in an area and that a residence or business takes the step to subscribe to broadband, i.e. adopting high-speed internet. Unfortunately, Texas ranks in the bottom half of states when it comes to adoption — ranking 35th among states and territories — and with a 67.6% adoption rate, doesn’t even meet the national average.

Why do poor adoption numbers matter?
If Texans aren’t subscribing to broadband, there isn’t much incentive for providers to install additional infrastructure because there’s a chance not enough customers will subscribe. Though one of the main barriers to broadband adoption is cost, other barriers such as lack of devices or digital literacy skills often compound the cost barrier or serve as barriers on their own. At both a state level and at the local community level, Texas should work to understand what specific barriers residents are experiencing and not make assumptions that the only barrier to adoption is cost. Only when Texas leaders and communities truly understand what is preventing a family from subscribing to broadband can they create the correct public policy response.

What is “digital literacy?”
Digital literacy means having the skills necessary to utilize and leverage broadband and related technologies across sectors. Did you know that currently 80% of middle-skill jobs require digital skills? And that 73% of workers in the service sector lack the skills to solve problems in a digital environment?[1] It is critical that Texas invest in digital literacy programs in order to modernize its workforce. In turn, this will increase the number of Texans choosing to subscribe to broadband.

So what now?
The recent announcement of over $360 million in federal funds to expand broadband in rural Texas is great news. But, it will take time to deploy, and technology applications and needs will continue to advance quickly. The only way to stay ahead and ensure all Texans have access and are leveraging technology to improve their lives is to measure, plan, and coordinate.

Measure broadband access and adoption. Plan to meet the current and future needs of all residents, businesses, and institutions. And coordinate at the state and local level to ensure Texas remains one of the best places to live, work and play.

Read Connected Nation’s Policy brief on RDOF Phase I here.