Texas lawmakers in Congress work toward eliminating ‘digital divide’

Eliminate the Digital Divide Act

Two bills in Congress sponsored by two Texas lawmakers could make broadband internet more accessible to residents and easier for students such as Sawyer Jones to attend virtual classes. Courtesy photo

Congress, led by two Texas lawmakers, is taking the lead on ensuring Americans have home broadband internet access.

The Eliminate the Digital Divide Act would allow states to execute their own broadband programs and give awards to broadband service providers to set up broadband to unserved areas. It is all an-in effort to ensure low-income individuals have access to low-cost broadband services. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a Senate version of the bill in early October; U.S. Rep. Roger Williams (R-Austin) introduced a companion House bill Oct. 20.

After Cornyn and co-sponsor Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) wrote the bill, the two contacted ConnectedNation, a nonprofit committed to getting broadband to every American, no matter where they live, work, and play.

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Sen. Joe Manchin as a Republican. He is a Democrat.)

“They came to us as the neutral resource on broadband,” said Jennifer Harris, state program director of ConnectedNation Texas. “They drafted (the bill) and came to us for feedback and asked if there was any part that can be improved upon. Our legislative affairs staffers paid attention to every broadband bill filed.”

The bill addresses rural areas by constructing a $10 billion State Broadband Program in which governors get money based on the number of unserved and underserved individuals in their state. That will allow governors to partner with broadband service providers to build out networks to those areas and residents. 

“It allows states to make their own decisions with the money,” Harris said. “They get to make their own choices – that’s the key. Having states being able to make their own choices, that’s the thing.”

Burnet Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Keith McBurnett and Marble Falls ISD Superintendent Chris Allen know firsthand the challenges that families without high-speed internet faced when the COVID-19 pandemic hit during the spring semester. 

Due to the pandemic, schools switched to remote, or virtual, learning through the end of the 2019-20 school year. 

Through a BCISD survey, school officials saw that at least 10 percent of their students do not have broadband access or sufficient broadband for remote learning. McBurnett said he applauds Williams’ and Cornyn’s efforts.

“Given the barriers that exist for all families to access a survey, we believe that percentage is actually higher,” McBurnett said. “Access to broadband service is no longer a luxury, but instead is a necessity, especially in the school environment. That is why Burnet CISD has invested in its technology infrastructure and purchased a device for every middle school and high school student to take to school and home each day, and enough devices for every elementary student to have access during the school day.”

Allen also appreciated the bill.

“This has been an issue for some time, but the pandemic has highlighted the need for more broadband accessibility in certain geographic areas,” the MFISD superintendent said. “I look forward to seeing how this act tracks through the legislative process.”

ConnectedNation is still surveying Highland Lakes residents on broadband access. 

The survey does not take more than 10 minutes and can be completed on a smartphone. Residents can take as many surveys as apply to them, Harris said. 

The more surveys that are completed means county residents will move up on the list of getting monetary resources, she added.

jfierro@thepicayune.com

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