Community talks challenges for high-speed internet access

The Elgin Courier: September 19, 2018

On Thursday morning, public and private stakeholders from across Bastrop County gathered at the Bastrop Public Library in a discussion about high-speed internet access for rural residents.

The discussion was hosted by nonpartisan policy organization Glasshouse Policy and lead by Texas Senator Kirk Watson and Texas Representative John Cyrier. County Judge Paul Pape and Precinct 2 commissioner Clara Beckett, representatives from the Bastrop Independent School District, members of the public and more weighed in on the issue.

The purpose of the discussion was to gather feedback and look for solutions to providing broadband internet access to people who live in areas where there might not be many options. Broadband internet refers to any high-speed internet access, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband internet as having a minimum download of 25 megabits per second and a minimum upload speed of 3 megabits per second.

University of Texas professor Sharon Strover, who researches rural broadband services, said people who can’t get affordable high-speed internet access at home often must go to places in town that provide Wi-Fi.

“It hits home, because I live on a ranch in Lockhart,” Cyrier said. “This is the great digital divide.”

Pape recalled the day his family got their first telephone line in 1958, comparing this and the first dial-up connections in the 1990s to the current situation.

“This is not the first time we’ve plowed this type of ground, it’s the same thing we’ve been through before,” Pape said. “Positive things will come out of this as we listen and work together.”

Pape asked for numbers about how many families have no internet access. According to BroadbandNow, 87 percent of Texans have access to wired broadband, while 20 percent of the population is underserved. In addition, 3.3 million Texans have no access to a wired connection capable of broadband download speeds, while 3.9 million Texans have access to only one wired provider and have no options to switch.

However, Sharat Shekar, a resident who lives on FM 535 outside of Cedar Creek, said this data might be underestimating the amount of households underserved. For example, when he tried to get internet service at his house, the FCC website said four internet service providers (ISPs) could provide service at his address, but each ISP could not reach that location for various reasons.

After talking to his neighbors, Shekar found that the entire subdivision was claimed to be serviced by a broadband ISP but could actually not get broadband internet.

“I love that there are incentives that are being provided to like a lot of these ISPs is to get rural America connected to the internet,” he said after the meeting, “but a lot of these ISPs claim to service addresses that they don’t, so they’re actually benefiting from all these incentives when they shouldn’t be.”

Representatives from Bastrop ISD said 25 percent of households enrolling in school do not have broadband internet, according to a survey filled out by parent when registering for school.

The Bastrop ISD representatives said they are currently looking into putting internet access on school buses, allowing students who might not have adequate internet service at home to take advantage of their travel time on the bus.

Watson said specific ideas such as this are necessary in order to build partnerships that will solve these problems. He also said the Texas Legislature is currently preparing to look at issues such as these when the regular session begins in January.

“That’s why we’re here, not to give speeches but to listen to discussion,” Watson said. “Meetings like these are important because it reinforces the need so that we can go and create the arguments.”


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