Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Texans desperately need expiring federal internet subsidy

Sunday, April 21, 2024

For thousands of Texans living in the Rio Grande Valley, the so-called “Last Mile” — that stubborn final leg of a broadband internet network that reaches a residential neighborhood — can seem endless.

More than 2.8 million households across Texas don’t have high-speed internet access but the problem is particularly acute in the Valley, where only 46% of households have a broadband connection, according to the Rio Grande Valley Broadband Coalition. While the state and federal government are sitting on mountains of cash to build out highspeed networks, only a fraction has been distributed. Many of Texas’ broadband deserts remain parched.

Even if you live in a city lucky enough to have an internet service provider, the lack of competition means rates are often unaffordable, particularly in the Valley, where so many residents live in persistent poverty. Some experts believe broadband access will become more affordable with the state and federal government shouldering the expense of laying down fiber-optic cables for internet service providers. But that’s years away.

The federal government has stepped up with a stopgap solution: the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program created through the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2021. The program, administered by the Federal Communications Commission, offers a $30 monthly subsidy to low-income families to help pay for internet service.

Roughly 1.7 million Texans have received the subsidy. That includes large metropolitan regions such as Harris County, where nearly 240,000 households benefit from the program, but also more sparsely populated areas in East and South Texas. In the Valley’s four counties — Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy — more than 200,000 households benefited.

Yet despite the program’s success, it is set to run out of money by the end of May unless Congress acts. While the program is not a panacea, it is a crucial tool alongside the much more daunting work of establishing fiber cable broadband connections across the nation, an effort currently mired in the muck of government bureaucracy.

Indeed, while Texas is set to receive $3.3 billion in broadband funds from the federal government, on top of a $1.5 billion Broadband Infrastructure Fund created by the state Legislature, the rollout of those monies has been glacial. The maps drawn up by the state and federal government to pinpoint broadband needs were littered with errors and are slowly being revised. The only federal Texas broadband project currently underway is a $17 million build-out in Sabine County. The state broadband fund, which will finance connection upgrades, pole replacements and matching funds for the federal broadband program, has yet to make any of that money available.

Many parts of South Texas have grown impatient waiting on government funds to fall from the sky or for private internet service providers to lay fiber cables in their neighborhoods. For some cities the Affordable Connectivity Program is more than just a monthly utility discount — it’s a crucial keystone in the larger puzzle of bringing high-speed internet to residents.

Take Pharr, a city of 80,000 in Hidalgo County and home to the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge connecting Texas to Mexico. By some measures, Pharr was one of the worst broadband deserts in the nation. The impoverished south side was such a dead zone that even cellphone service was sparse.

Cindy Garza, the city’s external affairs director, told the editorial boardlast weekthat students in Pharr would often have to buy a meal at Burger King just to get access to the fast-food chain’s wireless internet. Some would sit on the steps of their school after dark, tapping entire essays out on their mobile phones.

“That is the reason why the city decided this is going to become one of our No. 1 priorities: we’re going to move forward on our own and we’re going to create our own public network,” Garza said.

That opportunity arose thanks to the money the Biden administration poured into cities through the American Rescue Plan in 2021. Pharr officials set aside $16 million in federal funds and added $48 million in revenue bonds to install hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cables as part of a municipal broadband network. The service officially launched in June 2022 and now has more than 5,000 subscribers. Monthly plans start as low as $25 per month but can cost up to $80 per month for highspeed access. One-third of Pharr residents live in poverty, so to help those households pay for the new service, the city connected residents with the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Without it, Garza told us, Pharr’s municipal service would not have gotten off the ground. The roughly 530 subscribers of the program were crucial in spreading the word.

“It is such an important resource,” she said. “If we had decided to wait for broadband funding to come through, we would still be waiting.”

That may be the fate of other cities if the Affordable Connectivity Program expires.

A bipartisan bill extending the program’s funding through December is stuck in committee. Even if it passes, Congress should also establish longer-term funding that aligns with the fourto five-year timeline for completing broadband networks across the nation.

Among those standing in the way: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He was among Republicans who wrote a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in December blasting the Biden administration’s “reckless spending spree” and questioning why taxpayer dollars are going to households that “already had broadband prior to the subsidy.”

The FCC disputed that claim, releasing a survey showing nearly half of the ACP recipients had either no connectivity or relied solely on mobile service before receiving the benefit. The proportion increases to more than two-thirds when counting inconsistent connectivity. Cruz seems to fundamentally misunderstand the needs of his own constituents.

While major cities with multiple internet service providers offer low-cost options for broadband, areas with one provider often don’t. The Texas Tribune reported that one East Texas provider’s cheapest monthly option was $62. Perhaps while he’s campaigning for reelection, Cruz could swing by an East Texas broadband desert and ask families living below the poverty line how much they pay for monthly internet, or whether they have internet at all. It might be enlightening.

The Affordable Connectivity Program was always intended to be a temporary salve for communities lacking quality internet access. It makes no sense to terminate this program before the work of bridging the nation’s digital divide has even begun.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666