The 87th Texas Legislature has wrapped up – though special sessions are looming – and among the wins for Texans was the passage of legislation to expand broadband access across the state and connect more Texans, especially in rural areas. The Texas Cable Association and our member companies – Altice USA, Charter Spectrum, Comcast, Sparklight and Vyve Broadband – are proud to have worked with state leadership and legislators to pass these important measures.
This state legislation, plus increased federal broadband deployment efforts and funding, complement the cable industry’s longstanding commitment and investment to get more individuals online, whether through building infrastructure to unserved areas, promoting internet adoption or providing the necessary technology. As a result, cable is the leading broadband provider in the state and nation, with more than two-thirds of all high-speed internet subscribers.
Although the State of Texas has long been interested in increasing broadband availability and adoption, the COVID-19 challenges faced in the past year by students, workers and others raised the issue to the forefront of this session’s legislative initiatives.
Gov. Greg Abbott was clear in his January “State of the State” address: expanding broadband access would be a top priority of the session, a commitment echoed by other state leaders and lawmakers.
The importance of the issue was further reflected in the low bill number assigned to the primary piece of legislation, filed as House Bill 5 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) and as Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville). House Bill 5 was the vehicle that ultimately moved, passed and was signed into law on June 15 by Abbott, effective immediately.
House Bill 5:
☑️ Creates the Broadband Development Office within the Comptroller’s Office. The office will:
– Prepare a state broadband plan that establishes goals for greater access and adoption of broadband service.
– Create a broadband development map classifying each designated area in the state as eligible (fewer than 80% of addresses with access to broadband) or ineligible (more than 80% access to broadband).
☑️ Establishes a Broadband Development Account in the general revenue fund. The account would consist of legislative appropriations, gifts and grants, and federal money received by the state for broadband development. The Broadband Office would award grants, low-interest loans, and other financial incentives for the purpose of expanding access to and adoption of broadband service in eligible areas.
☑️ Protects funding distributed through the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).
☑️ Prevents overbuilding.
☑️ Limits grants to unserved areas only and establishes a challenge process for grants.
Another important bill to expand broadband that passed is HB 1505 by Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) and Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills). The bill – signed into law by Abbott on June 15, effective Sept. 1 – will reduce barriers for cable and other broadband providers so they can more easily access electric cooperative utility poles to attach the broadband infrastructure needed to deploy internet in rural areas. Among those barriers have been issues regarding permitting and pole replacement costs.
House Bill 1505:
☑️ Strengthens the framework that governs the relationship between electric cooperatives and cable operators and improves the path to courts if there are disputes in reaching those agreements.
☑️ Gives broadband providers nondiscriminatory access to electric cooperative poles and clarifies some of the terms by which a broadband provider obtains this access.
☑️ Creates the Broadband Pole Replacement Fund. The Fund is open to parties ultimately responsible for paying pole replacement costs in areas served by all pole owners in the state, including electric cooperatives and investor or municipal owned utilities. Providers will be eligible to apply for reimbursements for a portion of the costs of pole replacements that are necessary to get broadband service to customers in unserved areas.
The federal government could play a role in ensuring the success of both HB 5 and HB 1505. President Joe Biden and Congress are debating federal funds slated for infrastructure, including broadband. And Texas already is in line to receive $15.8 billion in new coronavirus relief aid, with billions more headed to its cities and counties. That aid has yet to flow to Texas; when it does, Abbott has said he will call a special session of the Legislature, probably in the fall, so lawmakers can decide how it will be allocated.
While lawmakers have the final say on how to spend the federal dollars, some could go toward broadband deployment grants (HB 5) or be deposited into the Broadband Pole Replacement Fund (HB 1505).
Meanwhile, cable operators serving Texas will continue to spend their capital to connect more individuals and businesses in the communities they serve. For more than two decades, cable operators have invested billions of dollars of private capital in infrastructure, technology, low-income access programs and more.
Sparklight on June 7 announced plans to build a fiber-optic network that will provide high-speed internet service that ultimately will connect more than 7,000 Kilgore residents and businesses. Sparklight has invested more than $50 million across Texas over the past five years in order to bring the fastest and most reliable internet to Texas residents and businesses.
Charter Spectrum in March announced a multiyear, $586 million initiative to expand broadband availability to unserved communities in Texas. The company plans to deliver gigabit high-speed broadband to approximately 133,000 unserved Texas homes and small businesses. While some of the funding was provided through the federal RDOF, at least $400 million will come directly from Charter.
Comcast, on the 10th anniversary of its Internet Essentials program in March, pledged to invest $1 billion over the next 10 years to help further close the digital divide and give even more low-income Americans the tools and resources they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.