As COVID-19 started to upend daily life as we knew it back in March, vast numbers of people began working from home while millions of students were forced to distance learn, as well.

Fast-forward almost six months and that scenario has become our new normal, so much so that the toilet paper and disinfectant wipe shortages that plagued us last spring have been replaced by a desk shortage as parents scramble to find furniture for the droves of kids logging onto virtual school this fall. That problem is further exacerbated as many are realizing they’ll be working from home for the long haul, too.

The desk shortage is a small indignity, however, when compared with the numbers of students who don’t even have home internet or computers.

Fortunately, the Deep East Texas Council of Governments is working to drag our region into the modern era with broadband initiatives, as well as radio communications and 911 system improvements.

A significant number of East Texans don’t have internet access, which limits their access to things like working from home, distance learning and even telemedicine.

Socioeconomic factors are often the reason a family might not have internet access, but where you live is perhaps even more important. At least 800,000 Texans live in rural areas without adequate broadband infrastructure, although lack of connectivity is an issue statewide. That’s why state Rep. Trent Ashby, of Lufkin, and state Sen. Robert Nichols, of Jacksonville, are leading a bipartisan group of lawmakers 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.”

In the meantime, DETCOG last week picked companies to oversee its high-speed internet project and the regional interoperable radio communications project.

“In the (request for qualifications), we retained the right to select one engineer for both projects, or separate engineers for each project,” director Lonnie Hunt said. “In the end, we decided to go with two separate engineers. KSA was selected as engineer for the interoperable radio project, and Magellan Advisors was selected as engineer for the broadband (high-speed internet) project.”

The interoperable radio project will update regional radio infrastructure to improve communications between law enforcement agencies.

Most of the work on these projects will be done after a grant is awarded, but it is common for businesses in this situation to help with the grant application and then do the actual job, Hunt said.

The interoperable radio project will update regional radio infrastructure to improve communications between law enforcement agencies. A $1.1 million grant from Abbott’s office will fund the plan to connect Deep East Texas to the TexWarn radio system utilized by public safety operations in surrounding regions.

Beyond natural disasters, daily criminal actions require consistent communication but many agencies do not even have consistent radio coverage throughout their county, Hunt said.

“There are lots of dead spots where an officer can be called to go within Deep East Texas where they have poor or no radio capability,” Hunt said. “This project is designed to put the infrastructure in place that will address these needs.”

Meanwhile DETCOG continues to work on the region’s migration to the Next Generation 9-1-1 System.

The 911 program has replaced or improved equipment throughout the regional 911 systems this year, adding additional protection to prevent malware from disrupting the system and replacing all the 911 call-taking equipment in the region with state-of-the-art Motorola Solutions.

The region is only the second to implement this technology, Hunt said.

DETCOG also has installed new mapping technology called “Map Local,” which essentially brings 911 in line with other “blue dot” mapping systems like what is used by delivery services. The triangulation technology doesn’t work as well in the underserved areas in the eastern half of the region, but dispatch centers can track smartphones as accurately as GPS apps do, said Deep East Texas 9-1-1 program director Van Bush.

The Commission on State Emergency Communications asked the DETCOG regional 9-1-1 program to operate as a beta testing site for this technology and to detail lessons learned. Those lessons are helping the other COGs move to the new system more efficiently.

Slowly but surely, the initiatives DETCOG is working to implement are leading East Texas into the modern era. We’ll all benefit greatly by their efforts.