The East Texas Council of Governments is preparing to implement about 70 broadband projects with $536,000 of federal and local funds to support local businesses within the next two to three years. Meanwhile, local demand for bandwidth in the private sector is still growing, and increasing the digital divide.
Implementing broadband infrastructure in East Texas could require miles of fiber optic cables underground, at a cost of up to $20,000 per mile.
ETCOG will allocate the funds to infrastructure projects that support the local economy, with a goal of building three to five broadband projects in all 14 counties. One project in each county will supply broadband to individuals who work from home.
When ETCOG received a grant of $375,000 a year ago from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce for broadband projects, East Texas was already falling behind, even losing some businesses to larger cities. Matching local funds of $161,000 will supplement the federal grant.
“I realize this grant represents one step of many that must occur to help our businesses secure the broadband service they need at a price they can afford,” said David Cleveland, ETCOG’s executive director.
The first step was negotiating a contract with TDC2 of Wiley, a firm that has installed broadband in Texas and other states. Cleveland said procuring a legal staff is the last step before the project moves forward in October.
“Once we have an attorney in place, we’ll meet with business leaders, chambers of commerce, economic development council directors, and survey their business needs,” he said.
In the private sector, demand for internet services is still surging. During the quarantine, thousands worked from home or studied online, while thousands more had little or no access.
Meantime, a myriad of services — from healthcare and employment to finance and entertainment — have moved online, widening the gap between digital haves and have-nots.
Dr. Carolyn Salter, who is running to represent Anderson County in the Fifth Congressional District, said East Texas is competing with urban areas like Dallas and Houston for infrastructure funds, but the connectivity also varies among households according to income and race.
“If you are not connected, you are disenfranchised from jobs, education, social connection, and leisure if you cannot afford the fees to connect, or if you live in an unconnected area,” she said.
Stable internet connections, defined as 25 megabytes per second, typically cost more than $100 per month per household through East Texas’ internet service providers, and are too slow for local needs. Salter said she sees the gap widening among many patients, especially those who live in rural areas without internet access.
“Telemedicine is the solution to rural medicine, but many rural elderly residents do not have access to the internet,” she said.
While some residents cannot afford the internet, others who can are receiving slow and sometimes interrupted service. Two reasons are increasing online traffic, with some household connections supporting several devices, and newer technologies, such as software programs and computers, that require a higher bandwidth to run.
Two more obstacles to high-speed internet in East Texas are low population density and tall trees. Service providers prefer to install infrastructure in highly-populated areas, where they can make more profit.
“Rural areas are the last to be connected because building broadband is not profitable here,” Salter said.
Though infrastructure improvements are slow in coming to East Texas, it’s not due to lack of effort. Cleveland said ETCOG applied for broadband technology grants as early as 2009.
Representative Lance Gooden (R-Terrell), incumbent in the Fifth Congressional District, said political conflict has held back funds.
“Nancy Pelosi and Democrats have continually held up funding for rural broadband which President Trump and I have pushed from day one — we understand what a critical issue this is for rural America,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cleveland has faith in the current project’s abilities to boost the East Texas economy. He told the Herald-Press that when broadband services do come to East Texas, infrastructure improvements will benefit other needs, such as online education.
ETCOG will use data from a survey by Connected Texas in Anderson County earlier this year, but will ask local governments to submit data and describe their needs to compete for the infrastructure projects.
Cleveland said he plans for city and county governments to partner with local internet providers to develop solutions.
“The goal is to work closely with existing providers and leverage what they already have,” he said.