INVESTING IN THE INTERNET

| October 14, 2020 | |

Cable companies and governments have long worked to connect Americans to the internet, especially in recent years as broadband has become a more integral part of our everyday activities. 

Today, 90% of American adults use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center, thanks in part  to $1.5 trillion invested by internet service providers over the past 20 years to build broadband networks. Cable is the leading broadband provider, with about two-thirds of all high-speed internet subscribers. Almost 90% of Texans have access to high-speed internet.

Even with the widespread availability of broadband across Texas and the U.S., some individuals still cannot, or choose not, to access the internet. This adoption and affordability conundrum is particularly troubling when it comes to families with children, who run the risk of falling behind as schools have transitioned, to some degree, to online learning. Moreover, COVID-19 has made broadband adoption and device availability critical to keep Americans connected by supporting essential distance learning, telework, telemedicine, e-commerce and social interaction.

In the past six months, cable providers, the State of Texas and the U.S. government have answered the call to expand programs and provide funding that will get even more individuals online, either through internet adoption or providing the necessary technology to get online.


Government money benefitting Texas

The federal government has long focused to bring internet access to rural America, primarily through programs administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). 

From 2009 through 2017, the federal government invested about $47.3 billion to target broadband infrastructure for rural areas, according to data from the FCC, RUS and NTIA cited in a June 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. During that same period, the report added, the telecommunications industry made capital investments of about $795 billion, including investments in broadband infrastructure, according to U.S. Census Bureau survey data.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress dispersed additional funding to speed up the adoption process. Several broadband initiatives were included in the comprehensive, far-reaching Coronavirus Aid, Relieve and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed in March. Among them:

  • FCC telehealth programs ($200 million)
  • USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program ($25 million)
  • RUS Rural Connect Pilot Program (ReConnect) ($100 million)
  • Institute of Museums and Library Services programs to expand digital network access and procure internet access devices ($50 million)
  • Veterans Health Administration telehealth mental health services ($17.2 billion).

The CARES Act also allocated $11.24 billion to the State of Texas for a variety of uses. Texas has dedicated some of its money for Operation Connectivity, launched in July by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders. Through the initiative, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) received $200 million to buy and distribute devices, hotspots, routers, and more based on specific needs identified by local education agencies. This effort is occurring in three phases: first, Wi-Fi devices; second, broadband mapping to partner with existing providers to connect unserved students in served areas; and third, connect unserved students in unserved areas.

In August, Abbott announced that the TEA, in partnership with Local Education Agencies, had procured more than 1 million personal devices and internet Wi-Fi hotspots with the $200 million through Operation Connectivity and matched by school districts across the state. The procurement, Abbott said in a press release, “will ensure that students attending a Texas public school will have both a device and connection to the internet throughout the 2020-21 school year and beyond.” Also according to the press release, since March the TEA and Local Education Agencies have contributed nearly $900 million to help close the connectivity gap among public school students.

CARES money also financed the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which directed $118 million in federal funding to support higher education in the state, including $10 million to improve the quality of online learning by strengthening distance education course offerings and bolstering institutions’ capabilities to use data to support student success.

Schools and students may also benefit from a direction by the FCC for the Universal Service Administration Company to open a second E-rate filing window for funding for fiscal year 2020. The E-Rate program provides discounts for telecommunications, internet access and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries. The additional funding will allow school districts to “purchase additional bandwidth needed to meet the unanticipated and increased demand for on-campus connectivity resulting from the pandemic.”

All of this funding, however, comes with conditions, the most important of which is that the CARES Act funding must be allocated and spent by end of this calendar year. More federal funding to benefit Texas is expected, as the pandemic and its impact continues; this may help not only this year but in future years.

For example, this fall the FCC will begin to implement its $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to go towards building rural broadband networks. The fund, to be deployed over 10 years, is the FCC’s largest investment ever to promote broadband access in unserved areas.

And Congress has introduced numerous bills to address internet access and adoption, including the Eliminate the Digital Divide Act introduced on Oct. 1 by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The Act would create a $10 billion State Broadband Program to provide governors funding based on the number of unserved individuals in their state. Governors would partner with broadband service providers to build out networks to those individuals. Abbott has issued a statement in support of the bill.

States around the country also are considering broadband related legislation.  Although the Texas Legislature will not convene until January, last session the state established the Governor’s Broadband Development Council to study and identify ways to provide internet access to underserved areas of Texas. The council is currently writing its report to the Legislature. And a group of nearly 90 state lawmakers recently sent a letter to Abbott calling for a statewide broadband plan to make broadband both widely available and affordable in Texas.

In both instances, the Texas Cable Association (TCA) and its member companies are actively engaged with the TEA to support Operation Connectivity, and with the Legislature and stakeholders to develop sound broadband deployment policy solutions. TCA will be monitoring bills filed on the issue during the 87th Texas legislative session.

Cable providers stepping up

The cable industry has long been committed to promoting the benefits of broadband, encouraging families to connect, and offering programs that help families overcome barriers they may face.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, cable providers have stepped up their existing programs and enacted new initiatives designed to enhance broadband adoption, such as the expansion of programs for low-income families. The largest such program is Comcast’s Internet Essentials. Since it began in 2011, it has connected more than two million low-income families to the internet, including 396,000 in the Houston region, and provided more than 100,000 computers at a discount.

Here are some of the initiatives underway by cable providers that serve Texas:

Altice USA:

  • Provided qualifying households the opportunity to purchase Altice Advantage, which provides low-cost, 30 MBPS residential Suddenlink internet service for student households that are currently without broadband access and that qualify for the National School Lunch program. 
  • Partnered with schools, government and nonprofit organizations on opportunities to purchase in-home connectivity for students as they continue to distance learn.
  • Supported the communities it serves through monetary and equipment donations to schools, a $10 million Small Business Recovery Program, and providing financial support of both the national and local affiliates of Feeding America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Charter Spectrum:

  • Relaunched its Remote Education Offer providing free Spectrum Internet and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12th graders, college students and/or educators. The promotion is available for customers who live in a Spectrum market and do not currently have Spectrum Internet services. The initial offering in March added 448,000 new households.
  • Launched Stay Connected K-12 to enable schools to offer high-speed, cable broadband access direct to their students, educators and staff in their own homes so learning and teaching are uninterrupted. Residences are not billed for the service.
  • Continues its Spectrum Internet Assist, Charter’s high-speed, low cost broadband program available to eligible low-income households and seniors. 
  • Doubled its original 2020 commitment to digital education, awarding a total of $1 million in grants to organizations providing broadband education, technology and training. With this year’s grants, Charter has surpassed its multiyear commitment to award $6 million in cash and in-kind donations to support broadband education across the company’s 41-state service area. 

Comcast:

  • Launched its Internet Essentials Partnership Program to enable enables cities, school districts, and community-based organizations to connect large numbers of low-income students to the internet to support distance learning.
  • Expanded eligibility for Internet Essentials to include all qualified low-income households in its service area. Comcast also extended its offer of 60 days of free internet service to eligible new customers of Internet Essentials through the end of 2020. The program provides in-home internet, the opportunity to purchase a low-cost computer and digital literacy training to help families and other low-income households stay connected. 
  • Extended free access to its public Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots through the end of 2020.
  • Announced a multiyear program to launch more than 1,000 Wi-Fi-connected “Lift Zones” in community centers nationwide. 
  • Introduced a new Xfinity Internet offer to provide eligible faculty, staff and administrators in the Comcast footprint a $150 Visa prepaid card, worth about two months of internet service, when they sign up for an Xfinity package.
  • Partnered with Dell Technologies to provide more than 2,500 free laptops to students, seniors, veterans, and adults in need. In addition, Dell Technologies will provide funding to upgrade 15 computer labs at local nonprofits in different cities, including two senior community centers in Houston.

Sparklight:

  • Extended through the end of the year many of its relief measures designed to support customers and communities in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, including making available its 15 Mbps residential internet plan for $10 per month for the first three months of service to help low income families and those most impacted from coronavirus challenges, such as seniors and college students.
  • Provided free access to its public Wi-Fi hotspots across its footprint through the end of 2020.
  • Permanently boosted the majority of the company’s residential internet data plans by an additional 50 to 300 GB for free (based on plan) as of July 1.
  • In July donated Chromebooks to students at Frontier Elementary in Angleton, Texas, and at six schools in other states as part of its initiative to improve student access to technology in Title I schools. Over the past seven years, Sparklight has donated more than 1,500 Chromebooks to Title 1 schools in the markets it serves in 21 states.
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