Texas comptroller unveils plans for statewide broadband coverage map

Texas comptroller Glenn Hegar released Wednesday an initial state broadband plan from Texas’ Broadband Development Office (BDO), outlining several of its goals for improving access and affordability in the state. Most notably, the BDO aims to develop a statewide broadband map by January 2023.

The mapping focus stems from the BDO’s concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) current broadband maps “are not an accurate representation of the served, underserved and unserved areas in Texas.”

The BDO formulated its report based on survey responses from over 16,000 Texas residents, as well as insights from various roundtable discussions. The report added the granular data from the BDO’s map “will help quantify the digital divide in ways that are impossible at the drafting of this initial plan.”

A state-funded broadband map could be a valuable resource. Nonprofit Connected Nation currently offers a Texas broadband map on its website, though the map’s data hasn’t been updated since January.

The FCC is well aware of the need to improve its national broadband map. The agency in March said it expects to release its revamped maps by fall 2022. Localities and consumers will be able to make public comments on initial map developments.

Furthermore, the BDO noted federal restrictions may impact Texas’ broadband expansion efforts, in light of the U.S. Treasury’s final rules (effective as of April 1, 2022) on appropriation of federal broadband funding.

These rules, the BDO wrote, place “added pressure on an already strained supply chain by prioritizing a single broadband technology (fiber optic) and asking local governments to contribute a 25 percent match to access funding [through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)].”

According to the BDO, IIJA will allocate at least $100 million to Texas for broadband expansion, while $500.5 million was made available through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Fiber indeed appears front and center in the federal funding notice the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released in May. Senators in Tennessee have spoken out against NTIA’s decision to prioritize fiber, arguing that it could hurt rural broadband deployments.

The BDO’s report noted Texas’ last-mile broadband network “relies heavily on technology other than fiber,” and less than 50% of Texas households have access to fiber.

The BDO also emphasized interagency cooperation, both on the state and federal levels, is critical to obtaining more broadband funding. Only 11% of elected Texas officials indicated they have enough financial resources to meet their community’s broadband needs, the report found.

The organization already hosts weekly meetings with federal agencies to better understand the requirements pertaining to IIJA and the $10 billion Capital Projects Fund (CPF) – part of ARPA.

Also, the BDO established a council of state agencies to help push broadband initiatives within Texas state legislature. With this, it’s aiming to establish federally compliant grant programs by the end of the summer. The BDO further plans to execute a technical assistance contract, which would help local community leaders gain resources and staff expertise to implement broadband action plans in their areas.