NACOGDOCHES, Texas (KTRE) - As the pandemic continues lawmakers across the state say it has highlighted connectivity issues. Two East Texas legislators are leading a charge to change that.
“When I think about the number one issue that I have heard about in terms of challenges that we face in rural East Texas since COVID-19 has been thrust upon us, really this issue of connectivity in the digital divide is at the top of the list,” State Representative Trent Ashby said.
That’s why Ashby and State Senator Robert Nichols co-authored a letter to Governor Greg Abbott to start a plan for broadband infrastructure, now, ahead of the legislative session in January.
“Rather than waiting, I think the Governor can put a group together," Nichols said. "He’s got a broadband collection already. Unfortunately, they’re not instructed to come up with a plan.”
Lawmakers say Texas is one of six states in the nation not to have a statewide broadband plan and because of that, the State is missing out on federal grants to expand the broadband infrastructure.
“When an application is submitted to the federal government for one of their funding program, automatically without question, that application has points deducted because the state of Texas does not have a broadband plan” Ashby said.
Last legislative session, Senate Bill 14, authored by Nichols was signed into law allowing electric cooperatives to use easements for more than just electricity, like broadband services. Out of the 64 electric co-ops in Texas, 10 are putting in broadband technology now.
“Unfortunately, for us, the rural East Texas Electric Co-Op’s are not moving forward at this time but I think they are seriously looking at it watching how the others are doing it financially and how does it look with," Nichols said. "What type of hardware and software you need. I think they will be working toward that.”
Both lawmakers say COVID-19 has highlighted the growing need for high-speed internet and connectivity in the public and private sectors.
“From our small business community, educators, school board members, parents that are dealing with remote learning hardships at the time,” Ashby said. "Our physicians and healthcare community about the impact that this is having on telemedicine.
“Before school started, every one of our schools were instructed to identify what type of internet access is available in their home," Nichols said. "We never had that information before. It’s not being collected in one universal pot. You can take that data and do statewide mapping very quickly. We don’t have that or it’s very crude the information that we do have.”
“This is a very important issue not just for House District 11, Cherokee, Rusk and Nacogdoches, but really all of rural East Texas and all of rural Texas,” State Representative Travis Clardy said.
To read the full letter co-authored by Rep. Trent Ashby and Sen. Robert Nichols and the additional steps the lawmakers ask Governor Greg Abbott to take with expanding broadband infrastructure, click here.