Commentary: Keeping rural Texas communities connected – San Antonio Express-News

Texans are no stranger to the challenge of accessing not just reliable but affordable internet connectivity. In fact, according to the Benton Institute, as of June, Texas had 777,000 homes and businesses with no internet access.

This digital divide, disproportionately affecting isolated rural areas, forces residents in these communities to travel great distances to receive basic access to health care, schooling and more.

In late 2021, a solution to this was included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: the Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP.  More than 1.6 million Texas households have enrolled since. If this broadband-specific program is not extended, many of these households will find themselves unserved once again.

For more than 150 years, the National Grange has worked to support and strengthen rural communities across the U.S., helping address the daily challenges they grapple with. As a lifelong member of the National Grange, I, too, am no stranger to the struggles our rural communities face, many of which would be mitigated with a strong and affordable internet connection.

Since the ACP’s inception, I have seen firsthand the positive impact its monthly subsidy of up to $30, or $75 on tribal lands, has had across the U.S.; more than 21.5 million Americans have accessed high-speed internet for low or no cost.

In addition to the ACP, included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is $42.5 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, known as BEAD, with the sole purpose “to close the availability gap” across the country. Texas was awarded $3.3 billion in BEAD funds for broadband infrastructure investments, allowing internet service providers to connect the state’s underserved and unserved areas.

Just northeast of San Antonio, a metro hot spot with one of the highest ACP enrollments nationwide, is the Texas Hill Country, home to thousands of rural, underserved residents who struggle to access broadband internet. Just four years ago, it was reported that 25% of Texas farms had zero internet access and 64 Texas counties lacked access to a hospital. The ACP and BEAD funding were built to directly address these issues, having proven to connect communities with critical resources that produce better health outcomes.

As BEAD proposals are in drafting stages, policymakers need to recognize what is at stake if the ACP is not extended. As explained by Brookings Institution’s Nicol Turner Lee, “If we build out state networks and residents don’t subscribe due to the foreclosed affordability program, we will have overbuilt and allowed millions of Americans to remain disconnected.”

With ACP funding expected to run out by early 2024 and millions of rural Texans and Americans depending on reliable internet for health care, schooling and more, policymakers need to act now.

The ACP and allocation of BEAD funding are undeniably connected, and one cannot survive without the other.

Karen Overstreet lives in San Antonio and is president of the Texas State Grange.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *