Broadband bill

Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and Copperas Cove ISD Superintendent Joe Burns at last week's press conference.

City, county, and school officials throughout central Texas agree that improved access to high-speed broadband internet is critical to education, economic growth and overall quality of life, and rural areas are particularly vulnerable to a lack of adequate service.

To try and correct that deficiency, Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, announced last Friday that he has filed a bill titled “Eliminate the Digital Divide Act,” which would earmark $10 billion for states across the country to use in improving and expanding their high-speed networks.

“According to the Texas comptroller, more than two million Texans didn’t have access to reliable Internet before the (COVID-19) pandemic, while a staggering 18 million Americans nationwide had no access at all,” Williams said last Friday during a press conference at the Copperas Cove Independent School District administration building.

“Now, in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis, the need for broadband access to resources and health care delivery has never been more important.”

Williams’ District 25 includes, among others, Coryell and Lampasas counties, as well as parts of Bell County.

Joining him at last week’s announcement were a number of area city, county and school officials, including Copperas Cove school superintendent Joe Burns, Gatesville Mayor Gary Chumley, and Coryell County Judge Roger Miller.

“It is, and has been for several years, a vital part of our national and local infrastructure – as important as clean water, reliable electric service, and roadways,” Miller said. “Limited bandwidth available to rural school districts puts them at a disadvantage when trying to access Internet resources.”

Chumley compared the need for expanded internet service to the “rural electrification of America,” a national effort to expand distribution of electricity throughout the country.

“It is a quality of life issue,” Chumley said. “I personally know college students and high school students who have had to drive to Waco in order to get reliable broadband when they go to take a test, because if they get kicked off (the Internet), they fail the test.”

Burns said that improvements have been made to virtual learning systems since the pandemic closed area schools last spring, but much remains to be done.

In Copperas Cove, around 12% of the district’s 8,300 students remain at home for various reasons and depend on virtual learning platforms to complete their school work.

“Most of those students, if they live within the city proper, can gain access to internet,” Burns said. “But we’re a rural community. We service a large number of students who live outside city boundaries, and there are places in our county where you can’t even get a cell phone signal.”

Williams said he expects his bill, and a similar one co-sponsored by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, to pass “very quickly” when the Legislature reconvenes, and work on expanding Internet networks could begin as early as the first quarter of next year.

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