Gov. Greg Abbott and other top elected officials in Texas have plenty of evidence before them of the social, educational and economic consequences for hundreds of thousands of families around the state without broadband internet service at home.
Creating equal access to high-speed internet, experts agree, is as necessary now as electricity was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 to provide power to rural America, including the 97.7% of Texas farms and ranches without electrical service, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
The latest issue of Fiscal Notes, published online by the Texas comptroller of public accounts, states, “In its 2010 National Broadband Plan, the Federal Communications Commission stated that ‘like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.’”
The article goes on to note, “In 2016, well before the pandemic, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found that the gap between those with broadband access and those without (often called the digital divide) ‘leads to further economic, social and political disparities for low-income and underserved populations.’ The COVID-19 pandemic likely has widened the economic gap between Texans who have broadband and those who don’t.”
Once Congress finally passes enabling legislation, Texas is expected to receive $53 billion from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021, according to a White House fact sheet. Only $100 million of those funds are earmarked for expansion of broadband service in Texas, enough to deliver service to an estimated 1 million Texas households without service now. The state already has $500 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds intended to improve broadband service in rural communities.
Nearly 30% of all Texans, according to the Biden administration, will qualify for the infrastructure bill’s Affordability Connectivity Benefit, monthly stipends to partially offset the cost of internet service.
Abbott, however, has consistently expressed reservations about accepting federal funding that includes requirements for additional state funding, or funding that could prove to be short-lived. His predecessor, Gov. Rick Perry, believed the same, and as a result, Texas has forgone billions of dollars annually in badly needed Medicaid funding since passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
In a Dec. 13, 2021 letter, Abbott encouraged state leaders to scrutinize the infrastructure legislation.
“As you and your staff begin to review the IIJA, and as you review each federal funding agreement or contract associated with the programs you administer, please consider all of the requirements, particularly new ones, and carefully assess their implications,” Abbott wrote. “We must be conscientious of conditions attached to any of these funds by the federal statute itself or by the federal implementing agency.”
Readers belonging to both political parties reminded me of that letter after reading my Thursday column headlined “Texas leaders must close the digital divide.”
“That’s code for ‘don’t take the money’ without actually having to say it,” said one Democrat who spoke on condition of not being named.
A Republican reader noted that even if Texas does accept all of the IIJA funding, which he agreed was unlikely, $100 million won’t even solve the connectivity problem in a single major city in the state.
SA Digital Connects, the San Antonio-Bexar County government collaborative, recently produced a 302-page Digital Equity Community Plan that estimates it will take $600 million to close the city and county’s digital divide and an additional $90 million annually to maintain universal household access to high-speed internet, devices and, where needed, training.
The SA Digital Connects plan estimates that a total of $500 million in federal funding could flow into the city and county through various programs, while a Texas 2036 report projects a total influx of $4 billion for broadband expansion.
Yet the only thing more expensive than making broadband internet universal in the state is not doing so and watching the consequences unfold in the coming decades. More and more studies show a widening education attainment and lifetime earning gap between those with internet, smart devices and the know-how to use them, and those living on the wrong side of the digital divide.
A crisis creates opportunity, yet accepting or rejecting federal funds likely will be an issue in statewide and legislative races this year. As learned in the pandemic, there are serious consequences when partisan politics trump the public interest. Texas should take the money and invest it wisely.