Many types of infrastructure, including electricity and telephones, started out as luxuries but quickly became essential as deployment spread. Just a few years ago, broadband internet access was viewed as a convenience. Mediocre speeds were sufficient for most tasks, and anything beyond that only came in handy to allow movies to stream with fewer glitches. That time, however, has long passed.
The pandemic illustrated the importance of broadband, as schools and offices became largely remote, and adequate connectivity was often difficult. I chaired the infrastructure segment, one of the State COVID Task Forces, and broadband was far and away the biggest need identified by residents throughout Texas.
Even with things mostly returning to normal, the proportion of workers either fully or partially remote has remained well above pre-pandemic levels, a situation that is unlikely to markedly change. The scope of online educational offerings and healthcare has also permanently increased. The pandemic accelerated trends already in place, and broadband access has become even more essential. The AI explosion and “Internet of Things” (where cars, appliances, and even light switches are connected) further increase demand. Business meetings of folks from around the country (or the world) routinely happen with no one boarding a plane.
Texas faces substantial challenges in ensuring broadband access due to the state’s vast land area, including large expanses with few residents. Currently, about 2.8 million households affecting 7 million Texans have inadequate internet capabilities. Most of them are in smaller population centers and rural areas, where the economics of providing necessary infrastructure are not generally as attractive for private companies in comparison with more densely populated urban centers.
Additionally, more isolated areas often have even greater needs for access given a lack of proximity to higher education/training opportunities and medical specialists. Farming and ranching are increasingly reliant on connectivity for everything from commodity price monitoring to the use of sensors. A lack of broadband is routinely a “deal-breaker” in location and expansion decisions, which can negatively affect growth and even sustainability in smaller metropolitan areas and rural regions.
Following the Task Force recommendation, Texas lawmakers in 2021 created the Broadband Development Office, a program which seeks to map broadband, promulgate a statewide plan, and distribute grant funding to deploy service across the state. During the recent session, the legislature passed a measure providing much-needed funding (assuming voters agree and pass Proposition 8). The $1.5 billion fund would facilitate expansion of access to and adoption of broadband services and allow tapping federal matching funds, thus multiplying the benefits.
Households and businesses need broadband. It’s a critical component of modern infrastructure that is essential to future economic development and prosperity. Texas needs to be fully connected. Stay safe (and vote)!