By Wynn Rosser, Ph.D. & The Texas Rural Funders
Texans across urban and rural communities have deeply felt the impact of COVID-19 on our families, schools, businesses and communities at large. Inequities that we once referred to as “cracks” have revealed themselves to be canyons, especially when it comes to digital connectivity and Texans’ unequal access to high speed, affordable internet.
Our ability to participate in 21st-century virtual education, employment, commerce and healthcare is not determined by income alone, but by the presence (or absence) of physical broadband infrastructure. This is true in both rural and urban communities, but in rural parts of the state, access to high-speed or “broadband” internet has not kept pace with the demands of our increasingly digital world. The availability, affordability, and use of reliable broadband may determine whether a community thrives — or survives — in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.
During the pandemic, statewide efforts to find quick virtual learning solutions have given us unique insight into the longstanding digital divide between urban and rural Texas. Issuing iPads, Chromebooks, and WiFi hotspots may be effective in urban environments with dense cell signals, but not in rural communities where parents must either rely on a cell phone or drive children 30 miles to take advantage of makeshift WiFi in a school parking lot. This limited digital access affects a significant number of next-generation rural Texans. The National Center for Education Statistics classifies over 2,000 Texas public schools as rural, serving a student population of nearly 700,000. We have more rural students than some states have people.
“Broadband is an essential infrastructure issue. It is not a luxury, it’s a necessity that touches every aspect of a thriving community. Here we are in Monahans, the number one oil and gas producing region in the nation, but we’re disconnected from the rest of the world. I know we can do better.”— Teresa Burnett, Executive Director of Monahans Chamber of Commerce, West Texas
Improving affordable access to broadband for all Texans should be viewed through the lens of critical 21st-century infrastructure. As telehealth, education, business, and job searching have shifted to an online format, many rural Texans are left behind because broadband is either physically unavailable or too expensive. An independent analysis by the 12-county Deep East Texas Council of Governments (DETCOG) shows that their rural community members pay 400% more per megabit than do residents of the DFW Metroplex for considerably slower, less reliable internet. Few mainstream providers prioritize rural customers—in fact, in instances where broadband is available, most rural Texans still have just one provider. The same analysis shows that there are significant economic gains to be realized by expanding affordable access to broadband, projecting an economic impact across the East Texas counties of more than 10,000 new jobs and $1.4 billion in added GDP over a 10-year period.
No one sector or organization can expand 21st-century digital infrastructure on its own. This will require a network of public and private partnerships, a layering of local solutions that meet individual community needs, coordination at the state level, and supportive public policy.
Texas Rural Funders (TRF) is a group of eighteen philanthropic organizations working to bring attention and resources to rural regions across the state. As early as 2018, TRF supported Connected Nation Texas to work with individual communities on broadband access. Connected Nation facilitates a community-driven process to collect and map data on local broadband access as well as identify local technology needs. Then key stakeholders, including internet providers, create a Community Technology Action Plan for developing broadband solutions that meet the community’s unique needs. With a strong track record of successful engagements and relationships across Texas regions, Connected Nation is now harnessing a growing interest in addressing connectivity as many rural communities have fully realized their digital isolation through the pandemic.
While Connected Nation Texas and Texas Rural Funders continue to partner in support of community broadband solutions, long-term change to digital infrastructure will require collaboration by a wide range of partners across the state. The efforts of individual communities to expand broadband access can be significantly enhanced by supportive, statewide measures. Texas is one of just six states that has not adopted a statewide broadband plan. A plan would provide a roadmap for addressing the digital divide and make Texas more competitive for federal funding toward broadband access. Looking ahead to the 2021 Texas legislative session, Texas Rural Funders is working to build a broad coalition of urban and rural groups to advocate for data-informed policies that reduce costs and accelerate the deployment of digital infrastructure.
Texas cannot succeed without the shared prosperity of both rural and urban communities. As we have seen, broadband access is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity to ensure the economic, educational, and long-term well-being of the state as a whole.
Dr. Wynn Rosser is President and CEO of the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, based in Lufkin, Texas and a founding Steering Committee member of Texas Rural Funders.
Texas Rural Funders is a coalition of philanthropic organizations working to bring attention and resources to rural communities across Texas.