Ashby and Nichols

Two East Texas legislators are leading the bipartisan group putting pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott to develop a plan to expand high-speed internet access across the state as the coronavirus pandemic has “exacerbated existing disparities.”

Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin and Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville are the primary signers and authors of a letter sent to Abbott’s office Friday.

“Texas is well overdue for a state broadband plan, and we believe the state needs to begin the process of creating one immediately,” the lawmakers wrote.

Ashby and Nichols are rural Republicans, but a wide spectrum of legislators — 88 total — signed the letter that says broadband internet expansion can’t wait until the 2021 session of the Texas Legislature.

“It’s more than bipartisan. I think there’s absolutely universal support of this expansion,” said Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who also signed on to the letter. “It is important that we continually highlight this and make sure it is at the top of the priority list, especially as we’re going into the next legislative session.”

Access to broadband internet has been a major issue across East Texas since long before the coronavirus pandemic, but the pandemic has amplified the divide between connectivity in rural and urban areas. Nichols and Clardy have spoken several times about internet connectivity during calls with the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce. A representative for Ashby on Monday said that constituents of House District 57 have called his office about lack of broadband access more than any other issue during the pandemic.

Abbott shuttered all schools in the state for the 2019-20 academic year in April, forcing districts to rely on virtual instruction and distance learning.

“We’re going to see more remote learning, not less,” Clardy said. “We’re going to see this as a critical part of how we do public education and also how we expand higher education. Everybody needs equal access to information. This is one of those things where everybody thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

Office workers around the state were encouraged or required to work remotely during the early days of the pandemic, and health care providers turned to telemedicine in many instances.

People who are less likely to have internet connectivity are poor, elderly, rural, speak English as a second language or have less education — and that hasn’t changed since the 1990s, said Larry Irving, the former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and former administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Irving spoke about the digital divide during a panel at this month’s Texas Tribune Festival.

“What’s gone from an inconvenience maybe and a problem has gone to, your life has changed dramatically if you’re not connected,” Irving said. “And we still have over 5 million households [nationwide] that aren’t connected because they’re rural and over 20 million households that aren’t connected because they simply can’t afford a connection.”

He said not being connected to the internet reduces people’s chances of social distancing, having good health, educating their children, finding a job and running a business. People, including the elderly, may have to go out to see a doctor or shop because they don’t have access to telemedicine.

About 25% of people over 65 years old don’t have access to broadband internet, Irving said.

“Who are the people in America who are most susceptible to this pandemic? Who are the people in America who we want to keep socially distant? They’re all senior citizens,” he said.

In 2019, the Legislature created the Governor’s Broadband Development Council to research barriers to broadband and study possible solutions. Abbott has also partnered with the Texas Education Agency to form Operation Connectivity, which has helped to provide mobile hotspots and e-learning devices for students and families transitioning to remote learning. The lawmakers praised those efforts, but stressed “we fear that rural communities are continuing to be left behind.”

“For example, Operation Connectivity’s plan primarily benefited those households with broadband infrastructure and/or cellular availability,” the letter said. “Many rural students live in areas where neither broadband nor cellular service is available. Students, families, and schools in rural communities without this critical infrastructure were left to address the situation on their own. It is also our understanding that the Governor’s Broadband Development Council is not charged with developing a state broadband plan, which is an important first step to closing the digital divide in Texas.”

To establish broadband across the state, the lawmakers want the governor to establish a timeline with clear goals to measure progress. They are asking the governor to create regional plans that “incorporate unique challenges across the state” that also “support existing planning entities.” They also want state plans to encourage collaborations across government entities, evaluate existing assets and institutions to support the deployment of broadband, and assess future needs for access across the state.

The lawmakers said 44 other states and Puerto Rico have enacted plans to develop broadband infrastructure. They said the development could be supported by funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and while the federal guidance for the use of the funds is unclear, other states have used them to plan for broadband.

“Texas should consider leveraging this or other funding to jump start the planning process,” the letter said.

The governor’s office didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the letter.

The Texas Tribune contributed to this story.

Josh Edwards’ email address is jedwards@dailysentinel.com.