Student Francisco Gallegos tries several times to connect on a laptop during class at Palestine High School in Palestine, Texas on Thursday, March 26, 2021. (Lola Gomez/The Dallas Morning News) A statewide plan to expand broadband access into urban and rural communities is close to fruition as lawmakers reach […]
A statewide plan to expand broadband access into urban and rural communities is close to fruition as lawmakers reach an agreement in the final days of Texas’ legislative session.
Lawmakers reached a compromise on the proposal -- which will establish a broadband office to oversee improvements to internet access -- Wednesday, months after Gov. Greg Abbott declared expanding broadband access a priority for the Legislature.
The pandemic highlighted already existing digital disparities. Many Texas children, for example, struggled with classes when school was shifted online because they had unreliable internet access.
The bill’s passage is a good first step in what should be a never-ending process to get Texans adequate internet access, advocates said.
“There’s a million things that still need to be addressed,” said Jennifer Harris, the state program director of Connected Nation Texas. “This is not a topic that you talk about once and it gets fixed.”
The legislation to address internet access moved quickly in the early months but had been stuck in a conference committee since the beginning of May. Now both the House and Senate must approve the negotiated bill before the governor can sign it into law.
Texas is among a small group of states that doesn’t have a statewide plan or office guiding broadband expansion efforts. Advocates argue that a lack of guidance can deter efforts to bridge the digital divide.
The new state broadband office will be tasked with detailing which areas lack connections; establishing a program to distribute grants for improved access; and creating a statewide plan with long-term goals.
The last few weeks of negotiations focused on a difference in where the broadband office should be housed -- the House version placed it under the comptroller’s office while the Senate version located it within the University of Texas System.
In the negotiated bill, the comptroller will oversee the office with the help of a 10 person board of advisors. The board’s membership will include representatives from the tourism industry, the education community and both urban and rural areas, among others.
This kind of community oversight is essential to directing resources to the right places, said Thomas Marshall, a fellow for the Intercultural Development Research Association.
“It’s so important that communities are at the center of all of this because they know what they need best,” Marshall said. “They know which parts of their community don’t have access.”
The office will serve as a resource on digital connectivity and broadband and develop a plan that establishes long-term goals for improving access, adoption and affordability.
The bill directs the Governor’s Broadband Development Council to study broadband development in unserved areas, the deployment of broadband statewide and the patterns and discrepancies in access to broadband.
A House amendment from Rep. Jeff Cason, R-Bedford, was tacked on to the bill to require the broadband office to prioritize awarding grants to internet providers that block “access to pornographic or other obscene materials.”
When Cason’s amendment was considered in the House, bill author Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, raised concerns about how internet service providers should decide what constituted pornographic content and whether the technology existed to block that content. The amendment was removed by the conference committee, but a portion of the bill attempts to get to the root of some of Cason’s concerns.
The conference legislation directs the council to study the “detrimental impact of pornographic or other obscene materials” on residents and “the feasibility of limiting access to those materials.”
While the omnibus bill sets up significant infrastructure to launch connectivity efforts throughout the state, a number of other bills also sought to chip away at Texas’ vast digital divide in other ways.
One bill, which didn’t make it out of a Senate committee, sought to ensure any statewide broadband program for schools would provide free internet to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Another, which requires full Senate approval before Wednesday’s deadline, focused closely on improving digital literacy.
This kind of policy is key to making sure residents who gain access to broadband know how to use it, said Harris with Connected Nation Texas.
She also noted that other states who are further along in addressing internet access didn’t stop their work once a statewide plan was adopted.
“This is the very start of us working on this challenge. … Technology adapts and changes,” she said. “The digital divide -- you don’t solve it and then stop.”
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