LUBBOCK, Texas — There are about 7 million Texans who have little to no internet access, but there’s also been a historic amount of funding at both the state and federal levels to fix that. The Texas Broadband Development Office had a public hearing this afternoon to learn more about how they can use this money to best help the communities that need it.
There was a mix of providers, customers and others at the meeting this afternoon. While they had different points of view on how to tackle the broadband issues, affordability, education and more were at the heart of a lot of people’s concerns.
With Texas getting more than 3 billion dollars in federal funding to expand broadband access, the Texas Broadband Development Office –or BDO–is hearing from residents across the state, including right here in Lubbock. However, Poka Lambro CEO, Patrick Sherrill, said there’s a lot of complex things that go into getting internet to rural Texans.
“The state has got a lot of initiative to provide broadband to high cost, low income, promote broadband networks across the state and adoption,” said Sherrill. “We’re here to provide input to help that program run smoothly and efficiently, and make sure that we solve the problem for the long term.”
Affordability was a big concern at Wednesday’s public hearing because there’s a lot of land, but not a lot of people on it. It can be hard to find providers who want to spend the money on getting the infrastructure there and maintaining it, so many are pushing for private-public partnerships.
“The advantage of the provider [is] that the provider brings is that we’ve got infrastructure and people that know how to deploy broadband and so we’ll bring that to the table,” said Sherrill. “Other folks will bring some of their resources and needs to the table, and we’ll figure out how to assemble a grant application that provides the best bang for the buck.”
Some other challenges mentioned were digital literacy and long term solutions. Many said they don’t know how their internet even works, or who to call with questions, and others–like Kelly Davila with South Plains Association of Governments–said while public funding is great, it will run out at some point.
“They’ve got to take a lot of debt to build that out, and will they have enough customers later to pay for all the work they’ve done,” asked Davila. “That’s the key, we want to keep them around and provide service. A lot of that initial build out might be done here, but there’s not necessarily a long term plan for maintenance and operation of that fiber that’s built.”
However, the agreement here is that in 2023, access to the internet is essential, like any other utility.
The BDO has until August 28 to submit a five-year action plan to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. From there, things like a new broadband map and other plans will be discussed throughout the rest of this year, so the BEAD Program is expected to start in 2024.