Texas Sen. John Cornyn is pushing a plan that could help some of the estimated 286,000 Texas households without physical access to high-speed internet — but the plan is hardly a sure thing to become law.
Cornyn introduced a bill late last month that would provide $40 billion over 10 years to states based on the number of residents without access to broadband.
“We’ve seen how important that is during the pandemic,” Cornyn told the Star-Telegram. “It also holds a lot of promise not only for virtual learning and business, but also for things like telehealth, which I think is one of the best things that came out of COVID-19.”
He did not specify how he plans to pay for the $40 billion program, adding “there are other ways to finance it without adding” to the nation’s debt.
This is the third time during the pandemic that Cornyn has introduced a bill to expand broadband access, with both previous bills failing to become law. The previous bills called for the creation of a $10 billion program rather than a $40 billion program.
The most recent bill will be considered by the Democratic-run Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
“The biggest challenge is that there’s many [broadband bills],” said Heather Gate, the vice president for digital inclusion at Connected Nation, a nonprofit focusing on broadband. “For them to rise to the top, it can be really a challenge right now.”
Would the bill help Texans?
The bill is primarily focused on improving physical access to broadband.
As of July 31, just over 3% of Texas households lack physical access to broadband, according to data from Connected Nation Texas. In Tarrant County, an estimated 153 households did not have access to high-speed internet as of July 31.
These numbers are based on the lowest level of high-speed internet determined by the Federal Communications Commission.
Plus, some of the infrastructure is aging, said Jennifer Harris, the state program director for Connected Nation Texas.
Under the bill, states would partner with private broadband service providers to build networks in unserved areas.
“If we really feel as a state and as a country that broadband is a necessity, government does have to step in to help make sure that the folks providing broadband can do it and not lose money,” Harris said.
Physical access is not the only obstacle to residents receiving broadband. Before the pandemic, 67.6% of Texans were subscribing to broadband despite more people having physical access.
High costs for broadband and a lack of digital literacy are impediments to getting people to use broadband, experts say.
“Building more infrastructure might not help solve the problem,” Harris said. “It may just be more infrastructure that the residents can’t afford.”
The bill addresses some of these concerns.
States must distribute funds to broadband providers for projects providing broadband that offer a low-cost option for low-income consumers. The bill also requires the Federal Communications Commission to collect data from providers on low-income options offered to consumers.
“When there’s dollars available to do digital literacy, digital equity, digital inclusion on top of just infrastructure … those are things that we need to be doing,” Harris said.
State, federal government priority
People nationwide have grappled with a lack of high-speed internet access since the COVID pandemic began — and lawmakers have signaled a desire to expand broadband access.
The Texas Legislature passed a bill this year to launch a Broadband Development Office. The office will provide financial incentives to providers that expand broadband access in underserved areas, as well as create a state broadband plan and a map indicating areas in need of financial assistance.
Texas was previously one of six states that did not have a strategy for addressing the digital divide.
“In previous federal programs. … Texas got dinged for not having a state broadband office,” said Greg Conte, the director of the office. “That was a driving force, we didn’t want to be behind the ball when it came to support the programs provided.”
Congress has already allocated billions of dollars to reduce the digital divide through its coronavirus stimulus packages — and more money could be on the way.
A bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August invests $65 billion in improving broadband access and adoption. The bill is currently in the House of Representatives, where factions of the Democratic party are at odds over passing the bill.
Cornyn voted against the infrastructure bill, and he told the Star-Telegram last week that the infrastructure bill’s price tag was too high.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, told the Star-Telegram more funding for broadband access is needed, even with the money in the infrastructure bill.
“We need to come together on broadband. It’s long overdue. And not just bits and pieces, it has to be a major investment because the needs are so high,” Blumenthal said. “If it were up to me, I would say double [the broadband funding in the infrastructure bill].”
Gate has noticed an increase in programs designed to increase adoption of broadband, not just physical access.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit — an FCC program — provides discounts of up to $50 per month toward broadband service for eligible households.
“I’m very encouraged by the developments of the last couple of years, in a sense of prioritizing adoption, as well as infrastructure,” Gate from Connected Nation said.