Robert Fleming raises cattle, wheat and corn in four Central Texas counties. He calls himself a Facebook maniac and said he cherishes his smartphone nearly as much as a summertime rain.
Like many in flyover country, he has invited technology to pull up a chair. He said Tuesday he had not heard Bell County, where he lives, will receive federal funding to improve rural broadband service, but he welcomed the news.
The office of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced the Federal Communications Commission has allocated nearly $77 million to expand broadband to nearly 34,000 rural homes and businesses statewide.
Locally, AMG Technology Investment Group will receive federal subsidies of more than $2.7 million to enhance broadband service in Bell, Falls, Freestone and Limestone counties. McLennan County did not make the funding list.
FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said McLennan County was not deemed eligible because its rural and urban areas enjoy adequate broadband access. An FCC map reflecting broadband penetration shows fixed broadband access provided by phone and cable is pegging 100 percent countywide, while mobile access is 100 percent at 5 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads, Wigfield said.
“There may be dead spots in the most remote areas of McLennan County,” he said. “There are dead spots in downtown Washington, D.C., if you turn down this alley or that. But indications are all of McLennan County has pretty good access to broadband.”
Nationwide, the FCC last fall allocated $1.48 billion to expand service to more than 700,000 rural residences over the next decade. Earmarking $803 million to 23 states in July puts it beyond the halfway point in the process. Wigfield said the money goes to competing companies via a bidding process.
State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, whose District 56 includes McLennan County, has championed broadband availability beyond the city limits sign. He hosted three town hall meetings on the subject last year.
He said maps the FCC relies on sometimes suffer shortcomings.
“It may be determined that a county is good to go, so to speak, yet it has only a few hundred feet of cable,” Anderson said. “We would prefer mapping at a more granular level. The FCC is involved in a remapping program. It’s a two-year process and incredibly complicated. The state looked into remapping but didn’t want to go it alone. It would be beneficial to get (broadband providers) involved, and they have expressed some willingness, but historically they have been very protective of their information in a competitive environment.”
He said a “covey” of broadband-related bills was introduced during the 86th Texas Legislative Session. One passed that should expedite the installation of broadband-related infrastructure, Anderson said. It allows cable to be placed in trenches dug by the Texas Department of Transportation for highway projects. Another failed that would have created a state broadband fund.
Rural or urban, solid internet access has become a necessity, said Fleming, who also serves as vice president of the Bell County Farm Bureau.
“It’s a big deal,” Fleming said. “Today, if you don’t have a smartphone or an iPhone, you’re behind in the ballgame. More and more, we’re ordering from Amazon if we can’t find it in town. There are YouTube videos on troubleshooting a piece of equipment, answering questions you used to ask of technicians or mechanics. There are ag forums. I just took a grain trailer to Dallas, had a problem with it, and it was still under warranty. If you go through a phone system to make arrangements for repairs, you spend a lot of time punching this number and that, and then when you finally reach the extension of the person, you get a voice message. I send email instead.”
Fleming said he also keeps tack of commodity prices online.
McLennan County Extension Agent Shane McLellan said he personally has noticed little problem with broadband service countywide.
“Some areas of Texas, sure, the service is horrible,” McLellan said. “But most areas of McLennan County that I travel, the service is decent. I can’t speak for everyone living in rural areas, but that’s been my personal experience.”
Gene Hall, spokesperson for the Waco-based Texas Farm Bureau, said it is not surprising rural customers face broadband challenges.
“This is the next chapter in a long book,” he said. “Rural areas are the last to be served by what most people take for granted: electricity, cable. Cable said a long time ago it would wire the world, but it stopped at the city limits sign. We support federal assistance for rural broadband. It’s not just getting email, it’s economic development. Business can’t locate where there is not reliable high-speed internet service. As for McLennan County, I think its six-figure population has a lot to do with it not receiving a grant. Look at Bellmead, Lacy Lakeview, all of Greater Waco. Service is fairly reliable.”