Published on November 16, 2023, 7:34 pm

Voters in Texas have approved a new state constitutional amendment that will establish a Broadband Infrastructure Fund, aimed at supporting the expansion of broadband services in the state. The $1.5 billion fund will be used for matching grants for projects under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Texas will be able to leverage funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and other federal programs to finance these initiatives.

Greg Conte, Director of the Texas Broadband Development Office, expressed enthusiasm about the flexibility provided by this legislation and proposition. He emphasized the importance of strategizing on how to effectively use the funding: “We…will put our heads together and start brainstorming, strategizing, on how we want to most effectively use that funding.”

One of the required uses for this fund is a broadband pole replacement program, which will provide reimbursement for up to $5,000 or 50% of costs incurred or paid by a broadband provider or pole owner when replacing poles used for eligible broadband service deployment.

Conte sees potential in using this fund to support the state’s Digital Opportunity Program. He aims to address not only infrastructure challenges but also promote technology literacy, improve digital access, and overcome affordability issues among residents.

The need for improved broadband access in Texas is evident from census data. According to the 2020 American Community Survey, roughly 7 million residents (equating to around a quarter of the state’s population) in 2.8 million households lack access to broadband internet. Based on criteria set by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second and 3 Mbps upload – there are approximately 1.1 million unserved or underserved locations throughout Texas.

Despite this investment in broadband infrastructure, it remains uncertain whether the new fund will be sufficient to close Texas’ digital divide entirely. The proposed fund initially amounted to $5 billion but was reduced to $1.5 billion upon approval by Governor Greg Abbott. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar previously testified that a sum closer to $10 billion would be needed to ensure full connectivity throughout the state.

Conte acknowledges the potential challenges posed by inflation, supply chain issues, and workforce constraints in stretching funds as far as possible. Nevertheless, he believes that these broadband expansion plans will facilitate a significant transformation in Texas. He shared his vision for the Broadband Development Office: “When I first started…I frequently joked that my goal was to work myself out of a job.” While this mission has not yet been accomplished, Conte is confident that these investments will propel progress towards closing the digital divide.

In conclusion, Texas has taken a significant step towards improving broadband access with the establishment of the Broadband Infrastructure Fund. As the state moves forward with its BEAD program and leverages federal support, it aims to address both infrastructure and accessibility challenges while promoting digital literacy among its residents. Although there are hurdles to overcome and private investment will also be crucial, this initiative marks a pivotal moment in bridging the digital divide in Texas.

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