AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The 22,000 Texans of Llano County are just an hour away from the high-tech capital, but many are decades behind in connectivity.
“Rural areas have been, let’s say, neglected,” Llano County Commissioner Peter Jones said. “There’s a big problem. Many areas of our country are unserved or underserved.”
More than one in 10 Llano County residents lack access to high-speed internet, separating them from the modern luxuries of remote work, education, and healthcare. In far West Texas, many residents fare far worse. According to the Texas Comptroller’s office, at least 20 counties have zero access to reliable, high-speed broadband.
They are just some of the almost seven million Texans who live disconnected, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data.
That’s a “digital divide” Commissioner Jones saw strike his community especially hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, as young students would huddle around hotspots in parking lots just to finish homework.
“Twenty-five percent of the kids that were sent home from school did not have internet,” he said. “And so what the school system did to deal with that was to put hotspots on school buses and park the school buses in parking lots. So the kids can go there with their laptops, and actually get their homework done. Well, that’s not a good long-term solution.”
Wednesday in the Texas House of Representatives, lawmakers came a step closer to finding that solution.
House Bill 9 by Lufkin Republican Trent Ashby creates the broadband infrastructure fund, a targeted account in the state treasury to provide for the Texas Universal Service Fund, repair telecommunications poles, widen access to 911 services, and strengthen connectivity in public schools.
“Today, I stand before you seeking to redouble our commitment to closing the digital divide in Texas through a bold and ambitious investment in broadband and telecommunication infrastructure,” Rep. Ashby told the House on Wednesday. “Broadband has never been more important than it is today. And tomorrow, it will be more important than it was the day before.”
The bill directs the comptroller to transfer $1 billion into the state’s broadband development account and $75 million into the state broadband pole replacement fund.
“Let me underscore that this bill will have a measurable impact on each one of your districts, no matter whether they be urban, suburban, or rural,” Ashby said.
Counties like Llano, though, will feel that impact more than most as they look for the state to supplement their local efforts to connect.
“The county does not have the capability financially to be able to do it alone,” Commissioner Jones said. “But working with the Broadband Development Office, and the funding and the grants, we are looking forward to moving forward on that over the next few years.”
House Bill 9 initially passed the lower chamber 139-7.