Expanding internet access, closing ‘digital divide’ on the table for lawmakers this session

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Nadia Ibarra holds her school-issued hotspot. The freshman was struggling to do her virtual schooling on her phone, using cell phone data. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two Texas lawmakers are proposing legislation aimed at closing the “digital divide” in the state, as the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the essential need for internet access.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and State Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, announced Friday that they’ve worked together and each will introduce bills aimed at making sure Texans both have access to internet service and the ability to subscribe to it. The legislative session begins next week, and according to their release, Gov. Greg Abbott has said he wants broadband development to be a priority on his agenda.

First, the bills want Texas to create a Broadband Development Office and a Broadband Development Program, which will later be able to create a plan for the entire state. Right now, Texas is one of six states in the U.S. that does not have a plan and “is regularly left at a disadvantage when seeking out precious federal dollars because no such plan has been enacted,” according to the release.

Nichols noted the plan will also allow the state to prioritize areas without access to internet “as well as those individual Texans who lack the knowledge or recourses to gain access to what is now an essential service.”

The bills also call for a broadband development map to be created and updated regularly.

Ashby noted he hoped passing the bill will make sure Texas is “serious” about making investments that will benefit economic development, education, public safety, health care and other areas.

Solutions already in the works

The pandemic exposed long-seated issues with connectivity in Texas, and led school districts and other groups to create solutions to help students when learning went online.

Almost 17 million children don’t have the high-speed internet access they need to learn online, according to an Alliance for Excellent Education analysis published in July 2020.

Shiner Independent School District discovered last fall that about 15% of its families didn’t have proper internet connectivity, while 20% of Moulton Independent School District’s families had similar issues. They partnered with the nearby Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, which turned Shiner’s parking lot into a hotspot and handed out hot spots to Moulton. The groups are also participating in a Dallas-based task force called “Operation Connectivity” to address the lack of high-speed internet and devices for students.

A rural school district in Caldwell County went so far last year to create its own free internet service and distribute hot spots for students to use. Lockhart ISD spent about $600,000 to build towers and install home routers and antennas.

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