State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, filed a pair of bills this legislative session that aim to increase broadband access for people who live where access to reliable internet service is limited, largely in rural areas.
Anderson, who has held his seat since 2005, said the issue is critical to helping underserved communities perform basic online tasks.
The proposals call for the creation of a broadband office in the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the establishment of a grant program to support public or private broadband investment. Anderson’s plan would also include coordination between the broadband office and the Texas Department of Transportation and require reports to the Legislature about the office’s progress.
“The plan is to advance the ball down the field, so to speak,” Anderson said. “We’ve been working on rural broadband here the Capitol for a number of years. Gov. (Rick) Perry was instrumental in getting that started, but we definitely, particularly in rural areas, have a gap and a need.”
The legislation is backed by the nonpartisan think tank, Glasshouse Policy, which has studied the issue and helped organize town hall meetings around the state last year.
“The internet has become a utility that is of a similar impact now in the 21st century as electrification was in the early 20th century,” Glasshouse co-founder Francisco Enriquez said.
Coordination between entities would be a “critical first step” toward better access to broadband, Enriquez said.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband internet as a connection with a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
In a new report, Glasshouse states studies show FCC statistics underestimate the number of Americans without access to broadband-level internet speeds. Though the FCC estimates 14.6 million Americans go without broadband, a study by Microsoft found the number is closer to 162.8 million, which includes 14.6 million Texans, more than half the state’s population.
“This is a much larger issue than, I think, individuals who live in cities like Waco or Austin or Dallas within those urban cores give it credit for,” Enriquez said. “This is an issue that affects suburban residents, exurban residents, rural residents and low-income residents of Texas.”
Anderson said he believes the legislation can pass political hurdles this session.
“Everybody understands the importance, so it’s a matter of working through the legislative process, bringing everybody together and dealing with some of the uncertainties and making sure that, with industry, that we’re going forward and being all-inclusive and developing a goal so that we can expedite things,” Anderson said.
A series of town hall meetings organized by Glasshouse Policy, AARP, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and the University of Texas Technology and Information Policy Institute last year included a stop in Hewitt, where Anderson and community leaders discussed the issue.
State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, have also filed legislation on the issue.
Perry’s legislation is similar to Anderson’s in that it would set up a group in state government to study the issue, and Price’s would create a council to report to the governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature. The governor’s office would provide administrative support.