MCALLEN, Texas – The president of Western Governors University – the largest non-profit, online university – is a national education expert on the digital divide.

Scott Pulsipher recently participated in a Zoom conversation with The Rio Grande Guardian. He sounded the alarm to policymakers and private sector leaders about the nation’s students. He said they were becoming offline and out of mind. 

“As our nation’s leaders stall on much-needed legislation and as internet providers shrink away from ensuring internet access, the digital divide widens and a whole generation of students, k-life, will fall behind,” Pulsipher said.

Pulsipher pointed out that 21 million Americans currently lack meaningful access to the internet. “It is fast becoming a full-blown crisis as Congress stalls and schools resume to virtual learning models.”

In order to close the digital divide, WGU has launched its own initiatives to solve this issue through $1 million scholarship programs and innovative curriculums to ensure every American has access to a viable education.

Here is the Zoom conversation with Scott Pulsipher:

Texas Broadband Plan

Meanwhile, 88 state lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats alike, have written to Gov. Greg Abbott to urge him to do more to address the digital divide. The lawmakers, including the entire Rio Grande Valley delegation in the Texas House, want the governor to develop a Texas Broadband Plan. 

State Rep. Bobby Guerra

“Texas is well overdue for a state broadband plan, and we believe the state needs to begin the process of creating one immediately. Texas cannot afford to wait until the 2021 Legislative Session to begin this process,” said state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra of McAllen.

“Other states are well ahead and are effectively leveraging private investments and federal funding for advancing broadband in their communities.”

Here is the letter to Gov. Abbott:

September 11, 2020 

The Honorable Greg Abbott Governor of Texas
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428 

Governor Abbott, 

We are grateful and appreciative of your leadership as the State of Texas continues to experience new challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has also exacerbated existing disparities across the state, one being rural broadband. We, the undersigned, are writing to request your leadership and support in developing a statewide broadband plan. 

As you are aware, broadband is more important than ever during these unprecedented times, and we applaud the steps you have taken in closing the digital divide in Texas. The Governor’s Broadband Development Council is exploring barriers impacting unserved areas, and your partnership with the Texas Education Agency forming Operation Connectivity helped provide mobile hotspots and e-learning devices for students and families as they transitioned to remote learning. 

However, we fear that rural communities are continuing to be left behind. For example, Operation Connectivity’s plan primarily benefited those households with broadband infrastructure and/or cellular availability. Many rural students live in areas where neither broadband nor cellular service is available. Students, families, and schools in rural communities without this critical infrastructure were left to address the situation on their own. It is also our understanding that the Governor’s Broadband Development Council is not charged with developing a state broadband plan, which is an important first step to closing the digital divide in Texas. 

According to recent data and maps produced by Connected Nation Texas, more than 800,000 rural Texans do not have adequate broadband infrastructure, thus limiting their access to telework or essential services, such as remote learning and telemedicine1. Additionally, the number of rural communities left behind increases as broadband speeds increase. We fear that technological advances, such as the fifth generation (5G) mobile broadband, will only widen this existing disparity. Therefore, we need a broadband plan to establish goals that guide the development and investment of broadband infrastructure for public interest across the state. Forty-four states and Puerto Rico have enacted such plans2 and certain federal funding programs award priority points for a state broadband plan when considering applications3. Funding applications submitted by Texas broadband providers start out at a point deficit in competitive processes because we do not have a state broadband plan. Texas is leaving federal funds on the table that could help bridge the digital divide in our state. 

Texas is well overdue for a state broadband plan, and we believe the state needs to begin the process of creating one immediately. Texas cannot afford to wait until the 2021 Legislative Session to begin this process. Other states are well ahead and are effectively leveraging private investments and federal funding for advancing broadband in their communities. Acting now also provides Texas some runway for any legislative actions that may need to be enacted during the upcoming Legislative Session, while waiting until the 2021 Session to start a plan would potentially push necessary legislative action off until 2023. 

When developing the Texas Broadband Plan, there are various examples available from other states to guide content, and the following key elements are common within robust state plans: 

  • Establishment of clear goals and objectives the state seeks to achieve in a given timeline for broadband connectivity that provide a baseline against which to measure progress;
  • Identification of potential policy barriers;
  • Creation of regional approaches that incorporate unique challenges across the state with
    broadband deployment that support existing regional planning entities;
  • Encouragement of collaborations and partnerships across various entities, such as economic
    development, education, public safety, health care, and agriculture to help achieve established
  • Evaluation of existing assets and community anchor institutions throughout the state that can
    support broadband deployment; and
  • Assessment of the demand and future needs of broadband access across the state.
  • Furthermore, the influx of federal funding like the Coronavirus Relief Fund, provide exceptional opportunities for financing the development of a state broadband plan. Although U.S. Department of Treasury guidance on the use of Coronavirus Relief Funds for Broadband initiatives is unclear, other states such as South Carolina, have utilized their funds for broadband planning purposes4. Texas should consider leveraging this or other funding to jump start the planning process. The state can also seek assistance from philanthropic organizations to support this initiative.
  • The time is now for Texas to join the other 44 states in planning the development of this critical 21st century infrastructure. A recent study commissioned by Deep East Texas Council of Governments, whose majority population does not have access to reliable broadband, indicates that broadband development within their 12 counties has the potential to add 2,500 jobs and $300 million in incremental gross domestic product over 10 years via investments in IT, education, and telehealth alone5. Similar economic benefits can be realized in other regions throughout rural Texas and the state can assist by prioritizing broadband development in these areas through planning. 

Thank you again for your work on keeping Texans safe and stabilizing our economy during this difficult time. We appreciate your consideration. 

Here are the signatures of the state lawmakers who penned the above letter to Abbott:

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