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After the Net Neutrality Debate Settles, Rural Texans Still Lack Broadband Access

The following was published by The Texan on June 4, 2019
by Brad Johnson 
Over 30 percent of rural Texans are without high-speed broadband internet access in their homes and government-led approaches are dominating the debate.

Rural Broadband 1280x853 300x200Austin, TX - In 2017, the world was ablaze with the issue dubbed “Net Neutrality.”

The spark that lit the fire was the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to repeal regulations from 1934 being used to regulate internet access and prices.

Some believed as the FCC stated, that the decision would “pav[e] the way for better, faster and cheaper Internet access for consumers” by “replac[ing] unnecessary, heavy-handed regulations…with strong consumer protections, increased transparency, and common-sense rules that will promote investment and broadband deployment.”

Others believed it would mean the end of fair consumer-focused internet.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed the decision and stated, “Without equal access to the internet, we lose our rights to be heard and to hear others.”

The entire kerfuffle started, among other things, a broader (sometimes bombastic) debate about the internet’s nature and relation to individuals and consumers.

Texas is a perfect case-study of a larger problem at hand — internet access — and how some are trying to bridge the gap.

Texas has six cities (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso, in order) in the top 25 highest population cities in the United States.

It also is the second-largest state in square mileage in the country, behind only Alaska.

Texas’ combination of dense urban areas surrounded by vast swathes of rural country presents an interesting dynamic of simultaneously revolutionary tech access, but also difficult-to-reach areas with limited internet access.

A 2018 report by Connected Nation  — an organization dedicated to bridging the rural-urban internet gap — found that 25 percent of rural Texans lack “access to broadband,” as opposed to two percent of urbanites.

In total, more than 2.7 million Texans do not have “a fixed broadband connection at home.”

The FCC’s 2019 report shows the number of rural Texans without broadband access is 1.45 million. When surveyed by Connected Nation about the lack of internet access, a third of Texans said it was too pricey — which is compounded by the fact that almost a quarter of all Texas households only have one choice of internet provider.

When options are lacking, prices tend to rise.

The benchmark used by the FCC and other organizations evaluating broadband access is 25 megabytes per second (Mbps). If an area has lower than 25 Mbps, it is considered underserved or unserved.

But even so, 25 Mbps is a bare minimum in the eyes of broadband advocates. For example, streaming a movie on Netflix could use up the entire 25 Mbps bandwidth.

Connected Nation director of communications, Jessica Denson, told The Texan, “We are dedicated to ensuring everyone has the internet access that you and I enjoy today.”

One problem that has lumbered on in this debate is an inaccuracy of service mapping. The FCC uses census data to determine which areas are appropriately serviced by broadband and which are not. The problem arises in that census mapping does not give a precise enough visual to accurately illustrate broadband coverage.

Census “blocks” are the “smallest geographic unit[s] used by the United States Census Bureau” to represent population areas.

Denson said, “If just one person in the census block has internet coverage, the entire block will be counted as ‘covered’ despite much of the people within that block not having internet.”

Denson continued, “We have found while working in these areas that because the map is not more detailed, a lot of people are being left out.”

Because the federal government uses this data to dole out funding to increase broadband availability for areas that lack adequate broadband — but contain a small portion of the population with 25 Mbps or more, and therefore fit the federal government’s definition of “adequate coverage” — government funding is not provided to expand it further.

Speaking about the general strategy behind her broadband advocacy, what she called “The Last Mile Effort” (or the final leg of the project), Denson said, “We believe America’s broadband situation is similar to electrification in the early 20th century, were at one point people thought of it as a privilege and then it became a utility and something everyone should have.”

Denson said Connected Nation has worked to improve broadband access in Texas towns such as McCamey and Marfa.

Connected Nation plans to continue to help rural communities throughout the United States and Texas improve their broadband access by establishing action plans and helping to navigate funding procedures.

A bill passed during the 86th Legislature aims to address the problem overall. Authored by Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco), HB 2422 would permit the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to “coordinate certain broadband projects.”

Anderson told The Texan he believes broadening the scope of access is imperative for people to access services such as telemedicine and will allow rural populations to stay where they are. This would, Anderson suggested, alleviate problems such as declining rural population and traffic congestion in cities.

“It’s a quality of life issue, for sure,” Anderson surmised.

HB 2422 was one of a few bills this session intended to improve rural Texans’ access to broadband. Anderson said his bill would increase efficiency by creating a need for “only one dig” in which TxDOT and broadband companies would install their own infrastructure at the same time.

“It would save a lot of money on the back end,” Anderson said.

The bills together suggest rural broadband access is a growing concern among state and local officials.

Mark Cross, a spokesman for TxDOT, declined to comment on the pending legislation but said, “TxDOT currently works with telecommunication providers in TxDOT right of ways and will incorporate the requirements of this bill into its standard operating procedures.”

A common theme among those we interviewed was the belief to treat broadband as the next big utility, like that of electricity and sewage, and therefore have government play a significant role in the process.

The infrastructure costs necessary to provide internet to rural areas has left many companies unwilling to take the hit to their profit margin for what they see as a low-reward on the profit side. Advocates say this reality has caused rural Texans to be left behind during a time broadly known as a tech boom in Texas.

Advocates argue that both funding and cooperation are needed on behalf of federal, state, and local governments to address the problem. Some organizations even hope to facilitate this cooperation between the public and private sectors to provide the service consumers want.

Lonnie Hunt, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments (DETCOG) — an organization that “facilitate[s] planning, eliminate[s] duplication, and promote[s] economy and efficiency in the coordinated development of our region” — has put a lot of effort into improving broadband service in his region. A region that encompasses Angelina, Houston, Jasper, Nacogdoches, Newton, Polk, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Shelby, Trinity and Tyler counties.

“Our worry is that if we sit around and wait for the private industry to fill the need we are never going to get [broadband] service that we need and, I think, deserve in rural areas,” Hunt told The Texan.

Most Councils of Governments have a population center within them, Hunt said, but his is one of the few (or even the only) without such an urban center. The benefit is those population centers have a spillover effect when it comes to broadband — rural areas surrounding even moderately-sized cities are still able to obtain competitive broadband coverage because of the nearby city.

The biggest city in Hunt’s area is Lufkin, which has just shy of 36,000 residents. A city is not considered an “urban center” until it surpasses 50,000 in population.

Hunt’s cost estimate for providing broadband access to all of deep east Texas is well more than $100 million.

“We’ll never get enough federal money,” to complete the whole project, Hunt said. “We think having half of the overall cost through grants and low-interest loans would go a long way as leverage to make the private investment [of these companies] work.”

Hunt believes that the economic impact on job creation and business flourishment for the region will be well worth the initial taxpayer-funded investment. To solve this issue, Hunt said two things are needed, “Money and local political willpower,” which Hunt admitted are “significant hills to climb.”

But he remains optimistic for his project that, he says, will likely take more than a decade to fully complete.

The unique problem has, for some, yielded a unique service. One Johnson City couple decided to start their own broadband company to service the small town of roughly 1,500.

Small towns are known for their just-as-small community institutions like barber shops and general stores. But Ginger and David McCullough created their own small-town broadband company that connects the residents of Johnson City to the internet with a far superior service than the dial-up which previously amassed the entirety of the broadband market available to consumers.

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