The Texas Broadband Development Office (TBDO), a grant program under the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, published its 2022 Texas Broadband Plan on Friday.
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Nearly 2.8 million Texas households or 7 million people lack broadband access, according to the US Census Bureau. Texas currently ranks 31st in the country for internet coverage, speed, and availability. 1 in 10 Texas households are able to buy plans supporting a minimum of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds due to costs, according to the BroadbandNow.
TBDO will award $5 million in financial grants, low-interest loans, and other financial incentives to internet service providers who are committed to expanding access to broadband services in underserved areas. Currently, there are 568 internet providers operating in the state.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar concluded a state listening tour last month in 12 communities to gain insights about the nuanced challenges of Internet access.
The tour conducted roundtables, town hall-style discussions, interviews, and surveys with public officials and residents statewide to identify ways to address the state’s Internet-related needs.
TBDO outlined the following areas of the digital divide that needed to be addressed across all 12 regions of the state:
- Digital literacy
A recent study by Tufts University shows that broadband availability was vital to navigating the pandemic. It estimates that a 1% increase in broadband access across the US leads to 0.1% (approximately 19 people per 100,000 people) decline in COVID mortality.
One of the regions designated as high-need with poor access was the South region.
“The South region also has the highest share of households with limited device availability to connect to the internet,” outlined TBDO in its plan. “43% (323,000) have no laptop or desktop computer to connect to the internet, and almost 17% (129,000) do not have any computing device whatsoever. These are the highest rates in the state, above the state rates of 25 percent and 9 percent, respectively.”
The South region, which encompasses Uvalde County, is one of the largest regions in Texas by population (2.4 million) and area (28 counties), but also has the lowest median household income across the entire state. Nearly half (46%) of all households in the region report annual income below $50,000, making Internet accessibility difficult.
TBDO investments are part of the state’s larger infrastructure projects designated under federal funding. The Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan will contribute an additional $100 million in federal investment to build broadband infrastructure and expand accessibility in Texas through 2026. Funds through ARPA will support another $500 million to support those statewide efforts.