AN AUGUSTINE, Texas (KTRE) - Rural areas of East Texas will eventually get their fair share of broadband access after Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 14 into effect in early June. However, some residents in San Augustine who survived a tornado in May said the bill was almost too little, too late.
Senator Robert Nichols (R) of Jacksonville filed Senate Bill 14, which will help increase access to broadband internet for rural areas in Texas by working with electric cooperatives. Governor Abbott signed the bill into law on June 6.
For residents of San Augustine, the bill’s passage comes after a time they needed it most. Brett Tyler, a business owner in the city, said when the tornado hit San Augustine in April, cell service was spotty, and there was little way to prepare himself for life-threatening weather events.
“It was definitely crucial; it would’ve been fantastic if we could’ve gotten it a little sooner,” said Tyler. “That was actually one of the problems: the people who did get it, got it a little too late. We got the weather warning, and then boom, it hit.”
Tyler added that some friends and community members who live outside of the city limits did not receive any warnings at all.
Even with the danger of life-threatening weather events, staying connected has become a crucial part of our everyday lives, whether it’s broadband internet or through cell service.
“Internet is crucial nowadays. With it being 2019, almost 2020, we use internet for everything,” Tyler explained. “From our business, daily, processing payments and credit cards, to online banking; we do all our food orders and processing through it.”
Senate Bill 14 will take shape with help from Texas electric cooperatives. According to SB 14, these co-ops are nonprofits own “more than 300,000 miles of distribution lines” that could be tapped into for broadband support. The idea is to use the existing electricity infrastructure to deploy broadband to the members they serve and meet their need for high-speed internet.
“We definitely see the need for high-speed broadband, to contribute to our economy, to bring businesses here, to help businesses grow,” said Brittney Ford, director of communications for Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative, Inc. (DETEC).
“However, the bill did not provide any funding to help us build the infrastructure to provide broadband. So, for us, it’s just the first step of the process, but there’s still a long ways to go,” Ford explained.
Ford said cooperatives like DETEC have the power poles to run fiber optics from one area to another; the problem is actually working the fiber into the existing lines. DETEC is a nonprofit provider, so there’s little room in the budget to cover the costs themselves.
Cooperatives could raise the price for consumers to cover the cost, Ford explained, but it appears at this time the solution may lie elsewhere.
“In order for us to provide broadband, we have a lot of studies for us to do, feasibility studies, on providing broadband, and we would have to set up a separate legal entity for broadband, separate from our existing electric cooperative," Ford said. “Again, there’s a lot of work to be done to get to that point to reach offering broadband. SB 14 simply removed one barrier in the process.”
During the early stages of SB 14, Nichols said each co-op would lay out a presentation, similar to a board meeting or stockholders meeting, and the co-op’s members would either agree to do it or not.
While it’s clear cooperatives have plenty of work to do before offer a finished product to its customers, at least one said he’s hopeful.
“I think it would be great, I don’t see anything wrong with it at all, if it’s affordable for folks,” Tyler said. “If they’ve got the tools and crews to keep it maintained, I think it would awesome, I think it would be great. In this day and age, you need internet, almost for daily functions.”