For many Texans across the state, access to reliable and affordable internet services can be hard (and sometimes impossible) to come by.

In fact, a 2019 study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance found that four of the five least-connected U.S. cities can be found in Texas, three of which can be found in the Rio Grande Valley. 

The Covid-19 pandemic made clear the critical importance of accessible broadband as schools and businesses began operating remotely and health care providers increasingly utilized tele-health services. 

This past session, Governor Abbott declared broadband access an emergency priority and the Legislature passed multiple measures to tackle the issue. House Bill 5 established a Statewide Broadband Office that is tasked with creating a Broadband Development Map and a Broadband Development Program. 

This program will award various grants, low-interest loans, and other financial incentives to support sustainable broadband infrastructure and expand broadband access to all corners of the state.

Another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 507, lifts unnecessary burdens to broadband-only providers by granting them access to state highway rights-of-ways so they can more easily build and maintain broadband infrastructure. 

This coordinate approach is an incredibly important step towards closing the digital divide in Texas. 

Editor’s Note: The above guest column on broadband connectively was penned by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen. The column first appeared in Sen. Hinojosa’s Capitol Update – Summer 2022 report. 

Editor’s Note: State Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen also spoke about broadband at a “State of Education” luncheon hosted by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce and held Aug. 9 at Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg. Below are Sen. Hinojosa’s remarks at the event.

Hinojosa: Broadband was always important; now it is a priority

Broadband was always important. But, it was never a priority, in a sense, until the pandemic hit, and then we found out how important it was, especially for education, long distance learning, tele-health, all across the board. 

Here in Texas we did not have a statewide broadband plan. Until last season. We created one. We placed some seed money, $600 million. We set up an office within the Comptroller’s Office. And this is what we found out.

We received an additional one billion dollars from the federal government, making $1.6 billion. We will probably need another $3 billion from the federal government directly for the state. Some areas are well served by broadband but others are not. So, we are identifying all the areas that lack broadband or their broadband is not sufficient to be able to be used properly and efficiently. 

We are working and trying to coordinate with local communities because some of the school districts receive funding directly from the federal government. As a matter of fact, school districts received over $12 billion directly across the state of Texas from the federal government. And some of the money is being used for hot spots and broadband. But so are some the counties. Some of the counties are doing their own thing. So are some of the cities. 

We are trying to get everybody on the same page so we can maximize the resources that we have to really address those areas that are not really being served by broadband. I think it is extremely important. So, we are working on doing that. We are continually adding additional funding to broadband and we are also working with the private sector, like AT&T, to make sure that the state provides the proper right of ways so it can lay out the cable and move on it as fast as practicable and possible. 

So, we are very much focused on broadband. Trust me, we know about teachers. They bore the brunt of long distance learning and trying to teach when many of the areas in our state and many of the communities didn’t have broadband enough to be able to provide that type of communication. 

Not only that. We are very much aware of the cost, of not only making it accessible but affordable. You can imagine a mom having four or five kids here in the Rio Grande Valley and not really knowing the technology and how to use it. I don’t even know how to use some of the technology. I have to ask my staff all the time how to use it. And so you can imagine the challenge we face in our community. I know UTRGV just got some corporate funds to teach parents and adults how to use all this, I guess you would call it, high tech equipment to be able to access broadband. So, the challenges we face are many. 

But for us, in the state of Texas, we are focused in implementing our statewide broadband plan. We are focused on finding additional funding and technical assistance. We are focused on providing the coordination to help our local government entities, from school districts to cities to counties, to maximize their resources.

For example, the City of Pharr, I think they have already spent $35 or $40 million on broadband. Pretty much money they have taken from the City of Pharr. And for us, we are coming in and we are focusing on making it a priority in those areas that don’t have broadband, number one. And, second, those areas that have broadband but it is not sufficient. What monies that we have, where they (communities) need help, because they cannot pay out of their own pockets, we will help. 

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