Internet crisis in rural Texas threatens family access as money runs out

Rural Texans face a looming connectivity crisis after nearly two years of a pandemic that has underscored the need for widespread internet access.

A state-administered fund that supports rural internet infrastructure is depleted, reducing payments to providers by about 70% since the start of the year. Now, bills are rising for customers in small towns, as providers tap into their own reserves and consider shutting down services altogether.

Just as Texas opens a statewide broadband office and makes plans to connect residents, smaller telecommunications companies serving the hardest to reach areas can shut down.

The providers who build and maintain phone lines that also bring the internet to rural Texas lack financial stability, which could derail progress.

“It’s basically the equivalent of saying in rural Texas, ‘We’re going to provide you with all these new luxury electric cars, and they’re going to do whatever you need,’ but at the same time you’re not their say you’re not going to pay for the highways anymore, ”said Mark Seale, executive director of the Texas Telephone Association.

Lawmakers adopted a potential remedy that would have changed the fee structure, but Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the bill this spring. Commissioners appointed by Abbott to the Public Services Commission have also failed to increase financial assistance to rural providers.

The association and rural telecommunications providers are suing the state, claiming the PUC violated its own policies and Texas law by refusing to adjust fees that keep the fund stable.

The focal point of the lawsuit is the Texas Universal Service Fund, a kitty created in the late 1980s to help rural telecommunications providers stay afloat. It is expensive to serve the most remote areas of the state, so the major providers have mostly stayed away.

In urban areas, the cost of a one-mile phone line can be shared by 100 people, but in rural towns, it can be shared by one or two customers.

“It’s cheaper to operate in a metro area because you have more people,” Seale said. “And they’re closer to each other than in East Texas where everyone is separated by pine trees or in West Texas where everyone is separated by miles and miles.”

Charges on telephone calls made on landlines and some on cells finance the state’s effort. But spending habits have changed – texting becoming more and more common – so the money pouring into the fund has almost dried up. The PUC oversees the pot and is responsible for adjusting the fees to ensure its solvency.

But in June 2020, when state officials recommended increasing the rate, commissioners took no action. The fund has fallen considerably.

PUC executive director Thomas Gleeson described the sharp drop in supplier payments during a legislative hearing in May, noting that suppliers saw an approximately 70% cut in funding.

Although the commissioners behind the June 2020 decision were replaced in the controversy that followed the February winter storm, the new appointees also failed to address the issue.

When asked how the PUC wanted the fund to go forward, a spokesperson replied that providing good internet connectivity is not “an authorized use of TUSF under the law”.

“Fortunately, the Texas legislature has taken decisive action to support rural broadband Internet with significant federal funding,” spokesman Mike Hoke said.

A Travis County District Judge dismissed the claims in June, but rural providers appealed to the Third Court of Appeal. They plan to argue their case in December.

Outside of court proceedings, lawmakers have attempted to resolve the issue by almost unanimously supporting a bill to adjust the fee structure.

But the governor vetoed the legislation because “it would have imposed new costs on millions of Texans,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said.

Student Francisco Gallegos tries to log in on a laptop several times during class at Palestine High School in Palestine, Texas on Thursday, March 26, 2021 (Lola Gomez / The Dallas Morning News)

Asked about the fund’s future, she stressed the need for widespread broadband access statewide and noted that Abbott had made connectivity a top priority for lawmakers. He signed six broadband reform bills in recent legislative sessions, she said.

Senator Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who has worked for years to improve the fund and sponsored the bill, said a group advising Abbott on the veto falsely called the legislation an “increase in tax”.

The current charges are around 50 cents per month for a telephone customer. The increase would have added an additional $ 6 per year, Perry said.

“It’s really not a tax increase because it’s what I would see as a necessity to maintain communications connectivity with arguably two of the most important line items in the state budget – oil, gas and agriculture, ”Perry said. “You can’t call it a tax.”

This is where the free market doesn’t work, he said, because it doesn’t make financial sense for providers to serve these remote areas. “It’s 100% public policy,” Perry said.

Customers – including schools, educators and families – are already seeing their monthly bills increase, said Michael Lee, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools.

Schools in remote areas of Texas often broadcast virtual classes live on their campuses to offer classes that students would not otherwise have access to due to limited local resources, Lee said.

Meanwhile, Texas is working hard to bring all of the state’s standardized exams online. Rural schools may soon have to pay higher costs for their Internet and telephone services or have fewer options for providers.

“If you can’t control these costs, but you have to have them, then you have to cut somewhere else, which will affect student learning,” Lee said.

This reflects the challenges that all rural customers face as the cost of connecting to the rest of Texas increases, Perry noted.

“It can literally force someone to choose between food, medicine, energy costs and broadband,” Perry said. “Broadband will lose every time.”

If the court doesn’t remedy the problem, the PUC can still approve a tariff increase, Perry noted.

The legislature will have an opportunity to review the service fund in early 2023 when the PUC will undergo a sunset review, Seale added. But the crisis will worsen in the meantime and many people in rural areas could be left without access by then.

The lack of concern about the fund does not appear to be in line with the recent focus by Texas lawmakers on expanding broadband access for all, Seale said.

Lawmakers have overwhelmingly backed bills establishing a statewide office to oversee efforts to address the digital divide that separates those with easy and reliable access to the internet and those who do not. not.

“We are announcing that rural broadband is a priority, but at the same time, the only way to deliver this rural broadband – this network – they have turned their backs on it,” Seale said.

The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation on pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.

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