Governor Greg Abbott and other senior Texas elected officials have before them ample evidence of the social, educational and economic consequences for hundreds of thousands of families across the state without high-speed internet service at home.
Creating equal access to high-speed Internet, experts say, is as necessary today as electricity was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 to provide electricity. electricity to rural America, including the 97.7% of Texas farms and ranches without electricity. service, according to Texas State Historical Association.
The latest issue of Tax Notespublished online by the Texas Comptroller of the Public Accounts, states: “In its National Broadband Plan 2010the Federal Communications Commission said 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, long before the pandemic, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found that the gap between those who have access to broadband and those who do not (often referred to as the digital divide) “leads to new economic, social and political disparities for low-income and underserved populations” . The COVID-19 pandemic has likely widened the economic gap between Texans who have broadband and those who don’t.
Once Congress finally passes enabling legislation, Texas is set 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 broadband expansion in Texas, enough to provide service to about 1 million Texas homes without service today. The state already has $500 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds earmarked to improve broadband service in rural communities.
Nearly 30% of all Texans, according to the Biden administration, will be eligible for the Infrastructure Bill’s Affordability Connectivity Benefit, monthly stipends to partially offset the cost of internet service.
Abbott, however, has always expressed reservations about accepting federal funding that includes requirements for additional state funding or funding that may prove short-lived. His predecessor, Governor Rick Perry, believed the same, and as a result, Texas waived billions of dollars a year in much-needed Medicaid funding since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010.
In a December 13, 2021 letter, Abbott encouraged heads of state to review 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 requirements, especially new ones, and carefully evaluate their implications,” wrote Abbott. “We should be aware of the conditions attached to any of these funds by federal law itself or by the implementing federal agency.”
Readers from both political parties reminded me of this letter after reading my Thursday column, “Texas’ Leaders Must Close the Digital Divide.”
“It’s code for ‘don’t take the money’ without having to say it,” said a Democrat who spoke on condition of not being named.
A Republican reader noted that even if Texas agrees to all IIJA funding, which he said was unlikely, $100 million won’t even solve the connectivity problem in a single major city in the state. .
SA digital connectionsSan Antonio-Bexar County Government Collaboration, recently produced a 302-page document Digital Equity Community Plan which estimates that 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, if needed, Training.
The SA Digital Connects plan estimates a total of $500 million in federal funding could flow to 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 that costs more than making broadband internet universal in the state is not doing it and watching the consequences unfold for decades to come. A growing body of research shows a growing gap in education and lifetime income between those who have the internet, smart devices and the know-how to use them, and those who live on the wrong side of the digital divide.
A crisis creates opportunity, but accepting or rejecting federal funds will likely be an issue in statewide and legislative races this year. As learned during the pandemic, there are serious consequences when partisan politics trumps the public interest. Texas should take the money and invest it wisely.