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Rural Texas struggles with digital divide

If broadband is a lifeline, then rural Texas is in danger of dying.

In its first report to the Texas Legislature, the Governor’s Broadband Development Council called for the creation of a state broadband plan and a state broadband office. Texas is one of six states without a plan for enhancing broadband access.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for broadband connectivity and emphasized it is a critical issue for the state’s rural and unserved areas, according to the report. Almost 1 million Texans do not have access to broadband at home, and rural Texans represent about 90 percent of that number.

The report is spotlighted in a panel discussion I moderated for the Texas Tribune as part of its virtual symposium on “The Future of Rural Texas.” All of the free sessions will be broadcast at noon Nov. 9-13 at texastribune.org, and recordings also will be available.

The lack of broadband access “is particularly problematic for those who need to attend school virtually, visit a doctor online or work remotely, either due to the COVID-19 pandemic or other factors,” the report noted.

Panelist Annette Gutierrez, executive director of the Rio Grande Council of Governments, encouraged rural Texans to band together in their towns and regions to advocate for broadband access of at least 25 mbps speed. Public-private partnerships are critical for success, she said.

“I like to think of myself as an optimistic person, and so with COVID the silver lining in all of this is that we have to do better, we have to be better prepared,” Gutierrez said.

A member of the governor’s council, Jennifer Harris, also served as a panelist. She is Texas program director for Connected Nation, a nonprofit that has been mapping broadband availability to make the need clear.

“The reason that is so important is a lot of federal funding is based off of whether you show up as your community being served or unserved,” Harris said.

Panelist Charlie Cano, CEO of Etex Telephone Cooperative near Longview, said his company has successfully pivoted to providing broadband via fiber cabling but still has about 50 percent of its market yet to connect. Federal and state incentives need to keep encouraging the rural buildout, he said.

The question is whether this can occur statewide quickly enough to help rural Texas, which has suffered from steep population declines for the past 70 years. A bipartisan group of 88 lawmakers recently wrote to Gov. Greg Abbott to urge him to act immediately to address the problem.

Cano said he moved from Austin to a small town to raise his family because “I love the emotional connection you get with a small-town community.” He wants the solutions to focus on small-town providers like his that are invested in their communities.

“There already are some providers that are doing a really good job ...,” Cano said. “They just need some additional help.”

“Broadband is a Lifeline” airs at noon Nov. 11, and I encourage you to join the conversation convened by the Tribune, a statewide nonprofit news site. Please also email ccobler@texaspress.com to let me know the state of broadband in your community.

Other topics for the “The Future of Rural Texas” sessions: rural Texas and the 87th Legislature; rural public education; rural higher education; rural health care; building a strong economy; preserving natural resources; and the view from rural Texas.

Big voter turnout keeps Texas red

Texans turned out to vote in numbers not seen since 1992 and kept the state firmly red.

President Trump defeated Joe Biden in Texas by 6 percentage points, which was less than his 9-point victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mitt Romney won Texas by 16 points in 2012.

Predictions of a stronger Democratic showing in the state proved to be mostly off the mark. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn easily defeated M.J. Hegar, state Republicans held on to their solid majority in both houses of the state Legislature, and GOP incumbents in Congress held all their seats.

Voter turnout topped 66 percent, the best showing in Texas since 1992’s presidential race, when George H. Bush and Ross Perot attracted intense interest and brought 72 percent of registered voters to the polls.

Republican political consultant Derek Ryan pointed to President Trump’s gains in support among Texas Latino voters compared to 2016. The map also showed Democrats gaining ground in Texas’ biggest cities.

“This should serve as a wake-up call to both parties, but it probably won’t,” Ryan said of a map showing changes by county in Trump’s voting results.

Chris Cobler is a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He welcomes email at ccobler@texaspress.com.

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