Infrastructure law could extend broadband internet in Texas

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title=wpil_keyword_linkBroadband access is expected to grow under the infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden.” title=”Broadband access is expected to grow under the infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden.” loading=”lazy”/>

Broadband access is expected to grow under the infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden.

PA

Texas is on the verge of being the target of what experts consider the costliest effort ever to provide more people with high-speed internet access in the home.

It will be a great test for all levels of government.

Federal and state officials are embarking on an ambitious partnership to bring high-speed Internet access to all corners of the state, drawing part of a $ 65 billion fund passed by Congress this fall as part of an infrastructure law signed by President Joe Biden.

Texas, experts say, should receive as much expansion money as any state, given its vast rural geography where high-speed internet is often the hardest to come by. If done right, experts say it could transform the state’s rural areas, giving residents the ability to participate in the modern digital economy, see doctors online, and even enjoy entertainment at home. streaming home – an upgrade comparable in importance to rural electrification efforts. one century ago.

But the upcoming cash injection also creates a huge logistical challenge for government officials supposed to implement the plan, questioning their ability to coordinate and avoid political wrangling that could derail the project.

“If we blow it up and other states do it, if the nation doesn’t do it right, that might be the only chance we have with this amount of funds,” said Robert Wood, who heads special projects. at the Texas Comptroller of Public. Accounts and is deeply involved in the state’s efforts to expand broadband Internet access.

Wood called the money spent on expansion a “generational opportunity” but one that comes with a “multitude of challenges.”

One group, Connected Nation Texas, estimates that approximately 820,000 Texas do not have high-speed Internet access. These people are primarily concentrated in West Texas, the Panhandle, and parts of the Rio Grande Valley, the type of sparsely populated rural areas where Internet service providers have determined that high-speed Internet has no economic sense for their businesses.

Both in Texas and nationally, federal investment in broadband expansion is “biggest fundraising push in US history,” said Tyler Cooper, editor of BroadbandNow , based in Dallas, which covers the social and economic impact of broadband Internet.

“I predict there will be a lot of growing pains along the way,” Cooper said. “But it could be transformative for a lot of these areas.”

Broadband is part of infrastructure law

The broadband investment is part of a larger $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure law that funds repairs to roads and bridges, replaces lead water pipes and improves the electricity grid, between other initiatives.

Of the $ 65 billion the law provides to expand broadband access, $ 14 billion is intended to help low-income families pay for high-speed Internet. The federal government is providing an additional $ 42.5 billion for physical broadband network expansion in the states.

Senior U.S. officials say the law is designed to let states take the lead, allowing them to design individualized plans to expand broadband in their states which they then submit to the federal government for funding.

“States know best,” said Kevin Gallagher, senior adviser to the US Secretary of Commerce, who oversees nationwide broadband expansion. “States are in the best position to know which parts of their states are areas that will need services, and it is important to identify these early and have conversations about the right way to help this community. ”

Department of Commerce officials say they are pleased that Texas has established a broadband development office this year, which is expected to lead all implementation and coordination efforts within the state.

Texas was one of the few states in the country that did not have a comprehensive plan or agency designed to handle the expansion of broadband, Wood said.

But that office also only has one full-time employee at the moment, Wood added, with plans to hire two more employees in January. And he’s still trying to process the money allocated to him by another federal law, the US bailout signed in March, before he even ramps up his efforts to apply for infrastructure law subsidies.

Wood says he’s excited about the state’s possibility of expanding broadband – he wants this moment to be remembered by his grandchildren in the same way his generation remembers the men and women who brought electricity to rural areas – but is aware of the pressure on the state. to get it right.

“One thing is, and it’s not a criticism, but I think what worries me a bit is that there is going to be a lot of pressure to withdraw money fast, and fast don’t isn’t always good, ”Wood said. “Again, this is money that we hope will shape our nation for decades to come, whatever they may be.”

Will Texas seek federal funding?

The federal government has yet to begin handing out most of the money for the expansion, first waiting for the Federal Communications Commission to release new maps detailing areas that do not have internet access. debit. However, even before the new maps are released, the federal government will issue a Funding Opportunity Notice on May 16, 2022, outlining the requirements states must meet to apply for funds.

Federal law will require, however, that Texas and other states first extend high-speed Internet to areas that do not have access to it.

Beyond the logistical challenges, however, some officials fear the policy could endanger the federal-state partnership.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday sent a letter to heads of state agencies to “review all provisions” of the infrastructure law before applying for a grant.

“If the acceptance of federal funds unnecessarily impedes or coerce the state, incurs the state at ongoing costs for which there is no available credit, or compels an agency to implement a federal policy contrary to the law or state policy, the deal proposed by the federal agency should not be signed, ”Abbott wrote in the letter.

In a statement, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said the governor is committed to expanding broadband access across the state and is confident that Comptroller Glenn Hegar and federal officials will work effectively together. .

But Democratic Representative Colin Allred said the letter worried him, fearing it would indicate the state would not be as keen on asking for as much federal funding as it could or would be reluctant to promote programs like this one. designed to reduce internet costs for lower income families.

“It’s a program that really needs to be run by the state,” Allred said. “And for that to be successful, it will take full state buy-in.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He has been a campaign reporter in Washington since 2010, having covered Pennsylvania politics and government during the former’s second term. Governor Ed Rendell.

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