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Pandemic highlights broadband internet gap for many in rural counties

Pandemic highlights broadband internet gap for many in rural counties

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Fiber optic networks crisscross the university towns of Waco and Bryan-College Station, offering speeds of up to one gigabit per second, a river of data that connects people with entertainment, education, business and medical information.

But over much of the 90 miles between — in mostly rural Falls and Robertson counties — internet speed and adoption rates quickly drop off, along with the economic potential that technology represents, reporting by the Waco Tribune-Herald and The Eagle shows.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the rural-urban digital divide, especially as schools prepare to reopen with a mixture of in-person and online education.

“COVID really illustrated the divide. It’s what has really exposed it in a meaningful way,” said Sharon Strover, director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

Temporary measures

School districts in the region and around the state are rushing to equip their students with laptops and mobile data hotspots, especially in poor and rural areas where families are less likely to have high-speed internet. The Texas Education Agency estimates 1.8 million Texas students are without access to a computer or internet service.

Through “Operation Connectivity,” the state of Texas and school districts are spending $250 million to provide students with that technology, including 716,000 laptops and tablets and 285,000 hotspots, the Texas Tribune reported this week.

Much of the money comes from recently approved federal relief money, and the bulk orders have allowed officials to negotiate discounts. Schools have been able to arrange mobile data plans for as low as $15 per month per device, said Ed Newman, technology director for Education Service Center Region 12, which serves 12 counties including McLennan.

Among the participants is tiny Hallsburg Independent School District in rural eastern McLennan County, which plans to distribute 30 or 40 mobile hotspots among its student population of about 120.

“It’s a twofold situation,” Superintendent Kent Reynolds said. “A lot of our kids just don’t have internet at home just because they can’t afford internet service. Coverage is another issue.”

Permanent improvements

But experts on rural broadband said ongoing temporary measures need to be followed up with permanent improvements to infrastructure in rural Texas. While a mobile hotspot may be enough for a single student’s homework needs, it may not be enough for a whole family with multiple children, said Strover, who has been working with the Governor’s Broadband Development Council on the subject.

“Hotspots are not the answer,” she said. “We need more wireline broadband. … Fiber optic will always be better than satellite, and fixed wireless is better than hotspots.”

State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, has also participated in the governor’s broadband council, and he said he hopes next year will bring meaningful legislation to improve mapping and broadband infrastructure in rural Texas.

“This whole COVID-19 has unmasked the problem with broadband we had been talking about,” Anderson said.

Lacking data

Texas is one of a handful of states that doesn’t have a broadband plan, which means it loses out on some funding opportunities, said Jennifer Harris, state program director of the nonprofit Connected Nation Texas.

Harris said a lack of detailed data on the problem of rural connectivity hampers progress on the solution. Her organization maps internet availability across the country, but in Texas it has to rely on philanthropic funding because the state does not contribute to mapping.

The maps, which were recently updated, show 96.27% of households in the state have access to broadband internet, defined as 25 megabits per second download, 3 Mbps upload. The rates are 100% in McLennan County, almost 98% in Falls County, 78% in Robertson County and 99% in Brazos County.

But those figures are based on internet carriers’ unaudited reports to the Federal Communications Commission. They indicate only that a carrier can provide that level of service to a single household in a given census block group, which can vary widely in size depending on population density. In effect, the maps significantly overstate availability of high-speed internet, and Connected Nation officials say they are seeking more “granular” data, especially in sparsely populated areas.

Connected Nation interactive maps show large areas of Robertson County and the southeast edge of Falls County lack any broadband service, excluding satellite and mobile data.

Even in towns in the Brazos Valley, including Marlin in Falls County, and Calvert, Hearne and Bremond in Robertson County, broadband options are limited. For example, Marlin lacks fiber optic or cable service, so residents are limited to satellite, fixed wireless or a single wire-based operator, AT&T, which provides DSL service over phone lines.

Broadbandnow.com, an online comparison service for internet providers, shows AT&T advertises a download speed of up to 100 Mbps, but its top download speed is recorded at an average of 18.24 Mbps in Marlin area’s 76661 ZIP Code.

An AT&T spokesperson in Dallas said the company could not verify the site’s numbers or methods, and he declined to divulge pricing details.

Access, affordability

Whether because of access or affordability, only 58% of Falls County residents reported having a broadband internet subscription in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, compared to 79% statewide, 74% in McLennan County and 81% in Brazos County.

Harris said her organization is neutral on the best technological means to provide internet access to families, but in any case it is a crucial service. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has put students and school districts without reliable internet access at risk.

“Those students are going to struggle more,” Harris said. “What I’m seeing is districts opening up schools because there’s no way they can be connected. I think we’re going to have people fall through the cracks of that plan because they’re not able to go to a physical school.”

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