By: Judge Travis Ransom
Broadband internet is the next essential utility. It has quickly become an expected part of our modern daily life. We take for granted things like electricity, clean drinking water, and telephone service but these utilities took a long time to plan and build out. Some day soon we will feel the same way about broadband internet. U.S. Census Bureau data indicate almost 2.8 million Texas households and 7 million people lack broadband access. Twenty-three percent of Texans are unable to attend online classes, see a healthcare provider from their living room, fill out a job application online, start a business or access online marketplaces from their kitchen table. These barriers negatively affect Texans’ quality of life and limit economic opportunities for people and the state overall.
The National Association of Counties (NACo) annual conference was held in Austin, Texas last week. Cass County, as a first-year member of NACo, was able to attend the conference without a registration fee. Cass County made the decision to join NACo for several reasons, not the least of which is to learn how to leverage state and federal funds for broadband expansion. NACo provides helpful guidance to navigate through national policy regarding rural broadband and infrastructure funding. In my time as County Judge, I have had more meetings to discuss broadband expansion than perhaps anything else. It remains one of the top three priorities of the county along with having a clean financial audit and improving economic development in the county. Cass County strives to be the example rural Texas county for innovation, transparency, and accessibility. Broadband development plays a critical role in that vision.
NACo developed the “Test-it” application which gathers information about the availability of broadband internet so that data can be communicated back to policymakers to assist in allocating dollars where the need is most pronounced. If you haven’t downloaded the Test-it app on your phone, please do so and test your connection speed. Cass County has more unserved or underserved than any other county in our region. Cass County was part of an early tranche of funding through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF) which went to Charter Communications which is branded Spectrum for internet service to consumers. You may have noticed their trucks conducting surveys throughout the county. The RDOF is an FCC program designed to close the digital divide in the United States by investing billions of dollars in the construction of rural broadband networks. Unfortunately, progress has been slow and we have not seen this investment result in additional or improved connectivity in Cass County yet. The RDOF was intended to dramatically reshape the longstanding digital divide in the U.S. We are now three years into the 10 year cycle.
Another federal program that is on the horizon is the broadband investment within the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA). States and localities are working with stakeholders to consider policies to reduce construction costs and accelerate project deployment. In short, we are wide open for business and can quickly build partnerships within the region to knock down barriers to development. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is part of the US Department of Commerce. NTIA has three different programs which should result in rural broadband expansion. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program contains $42.5B and aims to deploy broadband service to unserved and underserved locations, gigabit connections to community anchor institutions. Secondly, the State Digital Equity Planning Grant (DEA) allocated $2.5 billion to promote digital equity through activities to build capacity related to the adoption of broadband across three different planning and implementation programs. Lastly, the Middle Mile Grant (MMG) was allocated $1 billion to expand middle mile infrastructure, reducing the cost to serve unserved and underserved areas and increasing resilience of the internet backbone.
Cass County is actively engaged with both NACo, the Ark-Tex Council of Government (ATCOG) and other regional agencies as we work through this historic utility expansion. The Texas Broadband Development Office (BDO) will host a Texarkana Digital Opportunity Planning Meeting on Monday July 31st. During the meeting, we will discuss Texas’ broadband work and planning process and have breakout group discussions about barriers and solutions to digital opportunity. This meeting is part of the process of developing the Texas Digital Opportunity Plan. This plan will serve as a roadmap for achieving reliable and affordable broadband, high-quality device access, digital skills training, and cybersecurity awareness to expand digital opportunities for all Texans. I highly encourage you to participate in this process to share your perspective.
I can assure you that Cass County will not miss an opportunity to participate and advocate for broadband expansion in our community and will help shape priorities for Texas’ Digital Opportunity Plan. Citizen participation plays an important part in this work. To learn more about the BDO and this work, visit the BDO’s website. The BDO is also collecting information from all Texas residents. Be sure to complete the public survey on the website and make your voice heard. Cass County has a rich heritage and a bright future.