Federal Stimulus Cash Targets Expanding Broadband

More than 250,000 Texas homes, mostly in rural areas, don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to a new broadband services map commissioned by the Texas Department of Agriculture and released Wednesday by Connected Texas.

Though less than 4 percent of the state’s population, that’s still “more than all the households in the state of Vermont,” said Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who hopes lawmakers will help bring improved internet access and, with it, more economic opportunities to those sparsely populated regions.

The push to pinpoint areas without broadband access nationwide stems from a $7.2 billion endeavor financed by the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly called the stimulus package, and directed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service. The Texas map, which allows users to view internet connectivity by type of coverage, or to see broadband internet availability at a particular address, is the state’s first step in using the stimulus package funds on a host of efforts to expand access to technology.

According to the map, 96.5 percent of Texas households have broadband coverage. Finding out where broadband is lacking is crucial to economic development in the state, said James Losey, a program associate with the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation. Communities without broadband are “unable to use this tool to find jobs, find out how to improve their job skills and improve their economic well-being,” Losey said.

Now that the broadband map is publicly available, Staples said he hopes the information will spur private industry to expand services to unserved and underserved areas. “It’s a starting point on which we can build to further enhance the economy of the Lone Star state,” he said.

Sharon Strover, director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas, said Texas does not necessarily face added difficulties in improving broadband access relative to other states with large rural areas — but that neither is Texas a leader. A push for government-led broadband expansion under Bill Clinton decelerated under George W. Bush, Strover said. “Bush was very interested in having the private sector take the lead,” she said. While the vast majority of Texans would soon have privately provided broadband, the Bush decision slowed expansion into some remote areas where it made no financial sense for companies to expand.

Today, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, an arm of the federal telecommunication administration, is financing organizations and entities that seek to expand infrastructure, build public computer centers and educate people about the advantages of broadband. The state Agriculture Department, along with the Public Utilities Commission and the Public Safety Commission, has already recommended 32 applications from private businesses and local governments across Texas seeking $370 million for such programs. The federal government has thus far awarded more than $200 million in grants to projects in Texas.

But some have criticized how the money has been doled out. Ron McMillan, a board member of the Texas Cable Association and a regional vice president of government relations at Time Warner, said some organizations have received money without showing need or ability first. He cited groups in metropolitan areas that are not in regions with limited access to broadband internet and where federal money would be used to duplicate services. “This has been a rush by the government to throw money out there in hope that they’re going to create jobs,” he said, “but it’s poorly executed.” A project proposed by the city of San Antonio, for example, seeks federal cash to leverage infrastructure where internet access already exists.

Staples said the map will help state officials recommend to the Legislature policy decisions that would entice more companies to invest in technology infrastructure in rural areas. “Information is power, and we are empowering local communities,” he said. 

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