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Connected Nation Texas wants Burnet County to take on broadband access

Sierra Sees of Connected Nation Texas

Sierra Sees, Broadband Solutions manager for Connected Nation Texas, makes a presentation to the Burnet County Commissioners Court in the county courthouse Tuesday, Aug. 10. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Members of the Burnet County Commissioners Court agreed that local broadband internet availability needs to be upgraded and expanded, but not by the county. 

“I agree that the internet is not a luxury; it’s a requirement to interact in today’s society,” Burnet County Judge James Oakley told a representative from Connected Nation Texas at the Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday, Aug. 10. “There needs to be a top down approach for working with folks that are in the business of doing this who can somehow use these funds to make it economically feasible to put that infrastructure in place for people to sign on to it. As far as the cities and counties being the provider, I don’t agree with that.”

Sierra Sees, Broadband Solutions manager for Connected Nation Texas, made the presentation and asked commissioners to appoint one person in the county who could coordinate efforts to access grant funds and expand broadband infrastructure. Connected Nation Texas is a statewide initiative funded by Texas Rural Funders, which, in turn, is an investment group that works with rural communities to overcome a variety of problems, not just internet access. 

“It’s fair to say there is probably more funding on the table now than ever for broadband,” she said. “You don’t want the ReConnect Program to go live and you be behind the ball because you don’t have all your ducks in a row. I think (there should be a point person), and that person should be nominated by the Commissioners Court.”

The ReConnect Program is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that generates private sector investment and financing to bring broadband to underserved rural areas. Local governments and corporations can apply for the loans.

The funds Sees mentioned are available through a variety of grants from state and federal governments and other entities. A list of the grants available is part of the Governor’s Broadband Development Council report that was released in November 2020. On July 31 of this year, Connected Nation Texas released a county-specific interactive map that shows which areas in rural communities do not have access to the internet, by speeds. 

Texas broadband internet map
The white areas on this Texas map show where broadband internet connections are not available. The map is part of the Governor’s Broadband Development Council report released in November 2020. An interactive version became available July 31, 2021. Courtesy image

Oakley asked for other ways the county could help. 

“It starts with conversations with providers in your community,” Sees said. “You have to have that conversation with a provider at some point. Use this data to prove that you have customers for them to incentivize them. We are trying to give you the data that supports the needs in your community.”

Findings for Burnet County showed that 82 percent of residents have fixed or non-fixed access to the internet. Of those, 69 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the speeds, saying their current internet service did not meet their needs. Ninety-seven percent of households contacted said they would like additional options.

Twenty-one percent are not connected at all with 25 percent of those people saying the cost was prohibitive and 25 percent saying access was not available. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the need for quality internet connections, Sees said, especially in the past year with more people working at home and students learning remotely. 

Oakley said he understands the need, especially with so many people moving into the county. 

“It’s interesting. Many of them are more interested in broadband than they are water,” he said. 

Commissioners took no action on the agenda item, which was listed as a presentation, not an action item.

suzanne@thepicayune.com