North Dakota, Detroit, and rural Vermont are not necessarily what comes to mind when you think of growing tech hubs, but they are. From students in Vermont to doctors in Michigan to entrepreneurs in North Dakota—all have had their lives transformed by broadband expansion.
Broadband internet is defined by the FCC as internet with 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. It’s the technology which allows us to efficiently read something on Wikipedia, chat with our coworkers on Teams, or access any of the other myriad of internet functions which are becoming increasingly necessary for daily life in modern society.
Broadband is the “digital infrastructure” which keeps us connected. Over the years, having quick and reliable internet access has become more important for participating in modern society, but the pandemic accelerated this trend to the point where getting a job, participating in commerce, and keeping paperwork up to date are more difficult without broadband.
Broadband is critical to Texas’ continual rise as a top player in high-tech fields. We cannot expect to compete with other states and the rest of the world if we don’t have reliable infrastructure to do it.
To understand what Texas can do to level up our broadband, it is necessary to understand the difference between access and subscription. Access is a measure of how many people live in areas where there is a reliable broadband for them to access. Subscription is a measure of how many people are actually subscribed to a broadband provider, and is what people are commonly thinking of when they ask how many people have broadband.
Currently, about 98% of Texas’ geographic area, and about 94% of its people, have access to broadband, whereas only about 85% have broadband subscriptions. Since areas without broadband are concentrated in areas with low populations, it is apparent that most of the progress to be made lies in boosting subscriptions in areas which already have some level of access.
And Texas has a golden opportunity to do exactly that. Congress recently allocated $600 million to Texas to spend on broadband expansion. Legislators must carefully consider broadband needs and how best to achieve them with clear goals and measurable outcomes. If any of the federal funding is not necessary to meet these needs and accomplish its goals, the state should return the money.
The most effective strategy is targeted funding to places where more infrastructure could significantly increase access or subscription. As to access, this includes targeting the small pockets where access is limited by infrastructure or geographic limitations. In order to meet these needs, policymakers must consider various modes of delivery. As we discuss in a forthcoming research paper, while fiber is often the best, fastest, and most secure, it may not be the most cost-effective or even necessary to provide adequate service. Accordingly, it is crucial that policymakers remain open to other means of internet access, including DSL, cable, fiber, fixed wireless, 4G, 5G, and satellite connections.
As to subscription, this includes education to increase technological literacy. El Paso’s recent broadband expansion program provides a good example of what this would look like in practice. In places where the problem is people being unfamiliar with the internet or technologies, then education—not laying more wires—is the key to expanding broadband.
To be effective, a broadband policy needs to target infrastructure to where access is needed and promote effective solutions to low subscription rates where there is already access.