Internet access

Expanding broadband connectivity to rural homes is important to Texas, a Lufkin representative said Monday during state Rep. Hugh Shine’s monthly forum at the Temple Chamber of Commerce.

“COVID-19 has really exacerbated the problems that we face in terms of bridging the digital divide,” Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, said. “It’s showcased for a lot of people, especially in some of our urban areas, the dearth of (broadband) connectivity that we have across rural Texas.”

Ashby emphasized how that lack of broadband connectivity has often limited remote learners’ access to educational materials during the coronavirus pandemic.

“When you think about our school districts that were all thrust into a remote learning environment … that just did not work,” he said. “I have a lot of school districts that put up some Wi-Fi hot spots at the school so that students could drive up and download their homework assignments … but by and large, the remote learning was just not an option.”

The Texas Tribune reported in early March that more than 9 million people don’t have broadband internet connection in Texas. The state also is responsible for four of the five least-connected cities in the country, according to a 2019 analysis of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Texas lawmakers are slated to address that very lack of broadband connectivity through House Bill 5 — legislation that could reach the Texas House of Representatives later this week.

If approved, HB 5 would create a statewide broadband office dedicated to connectivity expansion throughout rural Texas. However, the legislation also would benefit hundreds of thousands of Texans in metropolitan areas, as the six largest urban counties in Texas have more than 590,000 households without internet subscriptions.

Ashby, who has enjoyed bipartisan support for the legislation he authored, said he expects HB 5 to pass — an approval he said could cost approximately $3.5 million in its first two years.

However, that price would likely drop in the years to follow.

“On a go-forward basis every biennium I expect … the cost of operating the office at the comptroller’s office will be about between $1 million to $1.5 a million every two years,” Ashby said.

Shine, a Temple Republican, said it’s a fair price to pay for improved Texas livelihoods.

“From the scope of things and the impact good broadband would have across the state … that, in my opinion, is probably a real good return on the investment,” he said.

Ashby agreed, and highlighted how the federal government sees broadband connectivity as an issue that needs to be addressed.

“Late last week we heard President (Joe) Biden rollout his $2 trillion infrastructure plan for America, and in that plan there is $100 billion just for broadband connectivity,” Ashby said. “It appears to me that our government, at all levels, has recognized that broadband is … really a necessity for all.”

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