Bridging the digital divide: South Plains provides input to help state allocate broadband funding

Published: Aug. 9, 2023 at 10:59 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - The state is asking for Texans’ input when it comes to getting high-speed internet in every household. The Texas Broadband Development Office (BDO) was in Lubbock Wednesday, as area leaders and service providers proposed what the office should focus on.

Two of the major concerns brought up at the meeting were infrastructure and education, with residents asking how the state will help get internet access to rural areas, and how they will inform people about grant programs to help them afford it.

When it comes to getting high-speed internet in every household, state officials say it will be a marathon. Texas was allocated $3.3 billion to get high-speed internet access to the seven million Texans without it.

In the High Plains region, which includes 41 counties in the Panhandle and South Plains, 12 percent of households don’t have access to high-speed internet. Another 1 in 10 households don’t have a computing device to access it.

Some funds from the state will go to help internet service providers build more infrastructure. Residents at Wednesday’s meeting want to know if those providers will be vetted before getting state money.

“Are they going to have the ability to maintain that service? How long will it take to install that service? Those are issues that are all going on already. And so, giving more funding, more resources, how is that going to work? What is that going to look like at the end of the day?” one woman said.

With more broadband infrastructure, others wondered how the state will help get workers into the industry to maintain it.

“We talked about workforce development, CTE [Career and Technical Education] training, that type of thing would be very vital. Because we’re already in a huge gap with the amount of workforce to do the job of providing these services and fixing the broken services we already currently have,” one man said.

Another challenge brought up was affordability. While the state has programs in place to help people afford high-speed internet, the BDO is still working on how to get that information out to those who need it.

Through one, the Affordable Connectivity Program, families enrolled in other government programs like Medicaid can get $30 a month off their internet subscription. They can also get a device discount up to $100.

While affordability is one concern, other residents brought up concerns about how to ensure people know how to use their internet.

“A lot of these digital literacy programs are based in...targeted towards children, which is wonderful. But what is that doing for our senior population?” one woman said.

The different groups emphasized how important broadband access is for West Texas, especially in areas like agriculture and telehealth.

“A West Texas chant forever is there are different solutions for different parts of the state, and rural solutions are not really going to model more urban solutions. And their needs are still great, they’re just different than what the needs are out here,” Kelly Davila, the Co-Chair for the High Plains Region and Director of Regional Services/Economic Development at the South Plains Association of Governments, said.

The Broadband Development Office’s stop in Lubbock was just one of many to hear from people across the state. To help the understand the needs on the South Plains, its Digital Opportunity Public Survey is available until 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 31.