By Renee Couch, Comal County Treasurer and TAC Board President
Try to imagine the United States developing into the America we live in without the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad or the interstate highway system. Such infrastructure was, and is, critical to America's development and success.
Today's critical infrastructure also includes high-speed internet. The pandemic highlighted just how important expanding access to broadband internet has become. Economic opportunity, education and even health suffer without it.
Last year, the National Association of Counties (NACo) formed a Broadband Task Force after a NACo study found internet speeds in 65% of U.S. counties — and in 77% of rural counties — were below the minimum standards set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Created with the premise that "if you can't connect, you can’t compete," NACo’s task force set out to study gaps in broadband access and develop a blueprint to help counties fulfill the crucial role they play in bridging the digital divide.
I had the honor of serving on the task force alongside about three dozen county officials from across the country. Texas was well represented. In addition to myself, the task force included Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley and Wise County Judge J.D. Clark, who co-chaired the task force with Montgomery County, Maryland, Council Member Craig Rice.
During NACo's 2021 Annual Conference in July, the task force released a report declaring that access to affordable broadband internet has become "as fundamental as acquiring electricity in the first half of the 20th century." The report outlines nine themes crucial to expanding broadband services, starting with the need to define minimum broadband standards.
Our focus on the task force was national, but of course, this is very much a Texas issue, too. In this issue of County magazine, TAC Senior Analyst Tim Brown looks at some of the data on broadband access in Texas, exploring which counties meet current standards and which do not, according to the FCC. You can read Tim's report starting on Page 52.
The Legislature grasped the importance of high-speed internet during this year's regular session when it passed House Bill 5, which established a Broadband Development Office. Among other charges, the broadband office is tasked with creating a map charting underserved areas in Texas and setting a threshold internet speed in those areas.
As Judge Clark said while discussing NACo's report, "Broadband in not just a luxury. It is absolutely essential to our families and businesses." The message is finally resonating, with a chord struck by the pandemic: Inadequate access to high-speed internet hurts Texans — schoolchildren and adults alike — and the counties where they live. And that hurts all of us.