State Grant Development Process Underway
87th Texas Legislature’s House Bill 5
Authored by Rep. Trent Ashby, H.B. 5 was signed by the governor on June 15, 2021. The bill established the Broadband Development Office within the Office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. This office was charged with creating a Broadband Development Program to award grants, low-interest loans, and other financial incentives to expand access to and adoption of broadband.
The legislation also required the Broadband Development Office to create and adopt a State Broadband Plan within a year of the effective date of the bill. This process has been completed, and you may view the plan at https://comptroller.texas.gov/programs/broadband/plan.php.
To read more about funding opportunities, go to https://comptroller.texas.gov/programs/broadband/funding/.
While state officials navigate federal grant guidelines, county officials should be doing their part to be poised and ready when state broadband grants go live, emphasized stakeholders.
“The Texas Broadband Development Office (BDO) is currently developing the entire grant management process to comply with state and federal guidelines,” explained Greg Conte, BDO executive director. “BDO will make announcements as funding opportunities and more information become available.”
In the meantime, Conte suggested county officials and others seeking to bring viable broadband to their area take the following steps in order to be best prepared when funding applications open:
- Consider ways to establish a local broadband planning team that will work with community members to understand their current broadband availability and identify opportunities to leverage assets/reduce barriers to the deployment of broadband services in the community. Teams should include various stakeholders, including (but not limited to) libraries, K-12 education, higher education, local health care providers, private businesses, community organizations, economic development organizations, local governments, tourism, parks and recreation, and agriculture.
- Build partnerships with broadband service providers in the community and non-profits seeking to expand broadband use, adoption, and literacy.
- Create a regional broadband plan that locates unserved and underserved areas of the county, identifies assets relevant to broadband deployment, and highlights strategies for addressing the unserved populations in the county.
While broadband is not a new topic, it received universal attention when the COVID-19 pandemic exposed widespread connectivity issues from rural communities to urban communities, observed Wise County Judge J.D. Clark, past co-chair of the National Association of Counties (NACo) Broadband Task Force and former chair of the NACo Telecommunications and Technology Steering Committee.
“People were forced to experience and think about broadband in an entirely different framework,” Clark noted. “It touches every aspect of our lives: local economy, public safety, health care, education, elections, court systems, and quality of life.”
Clark has become an advocate for bridging the gap, describing broadband as “an absolute essential to families and business, not just a luxury,” and he called upon Commissioners Court members to seek out partners to help close the gaps within their counties.
“You don’t have to be the provider,” he clarified. “But you can seek out partners.
“It’s our job as county officials to be convenors, to have a seat at the table, to get things rolling,” emphasized Clark, using his own county as an example of a community in the gap:
- Wise County has a population of approximately 71,000 and is adjacent to Fort Worth/Tarrant County.
- The county is 923 square miles, largely rural, has an agricultural history, and supports limestone mining.
- Proximity to DFW Metroplex is causing rapid growth in residential sector/housing subdivisions
- Broadband development has not kept up with modern demands/needs, especially as growth accelerates.
When it comes to seeking out provider partners, Clark had the following specific advice:
- Ask providers: What is holding you up? What is your pain point that keeps you from doing this?
- Request a timeline.
- Ask providers: If we do this with you, what will this service cost my citizens?
On May 13, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued a Notice of Funding Opportunity for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Much to the dismay of the Texas BDO, grant rules call for prioritizing the use of fiber.
“While the State of Texas will submit a letter of intent to apply for these funds by the July 18, 2022, deadline, I am concerned about the unnecessary restraints NTIA has placed on this program,” wrote Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar in a letter to the Texas Congressional Delegation on June 28. The letter, available at https://bit.ly/3OSMawv, goes on to say the following: “The new rules requiring the prioritization of fiber will hamper Texas’ ability to work with a diverse range of communities and stakeholders, to connect every household to broadband, and to close the digital divide. Moreover, with every state required to focus on a single technology to expand broadband, production bottlenecks related to that technology may arise. Considering the nation’s supply chain issues over the past two years, the timing could not be worse.”
Jim Allison, general counsel with the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, also called for more flexibility.
“Many options will need to be available to efficiently implement broadband services in the 254 counties of Texas,” Allison underscored. “We urge the federal and state governments to include local input and preserve all efficient and effective means to provide this essential service to our citizens.”
While counties wait for money to trickle down from the federal government, several are already making progress through their council of governments. For example, the Central Texas Council of Governments (CTCOG) offers the following on its website:
“Broadband is a priority of the Development District of Central Texas and the Central Texas Council of Governments. Through partnerships across the region, the DDCT and the CTCOG are making progress in addressing broadband from a regional perspective. Staff met with Connected Nation: Texas to learn more about their Broadband Assessment Program which is funded by the Texas Rural Funders. Connected Nation: Texas has now completed an assessment of Milam County and is currently active on their assessments of San Saba and Lampasas counties.”
The Deep East Texas Council of Governments (DETCOG) obtained a $9 million grant earlier this year to build a high speed wireless broadband network in northern Newton County. Specialists arrived in mid-March to initiate environmental and historical assessments of the proposed routes for the DETCOG Broadband Initiative.
“Getting broadband was a requirement for getting the new plant to locate in Bon Wier, and this project will open more doors for Newton County,” shared Newton County Judge Kenneth Weeks. USA BioEnergy, through its subsidiary Texas Renewable Funds, will be building an advanced bioenergy refinery in Bon Wier, about 10 miles south of Newton. The new refinery will bring 142 jobs to the county, according to Gov. Greg Abbott.
The $9 million high speed wireless broadband project was funded by the Texas General Land Office and will cover much of the northern part of the county with fixed wireless internet connections. The project will connect area towers to provide signals to area homes and businesses, linked by approximately 60 miles of fiber optic connections.
“DETCOG launched our initiative to improve broadband in the region in 2019,” said Executive Director Lonnie Hunt, former Houston County Judge. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure that every household and business in the Deep East Texas region has access to reliable and affordable broadband service. While a lot of progress has been made, this project in Newton County is our first construction project. We’re excited to get started with it.”
To see if your council of government is working on a broadband initiative, go to https://txregionalcouncil.org/; click on your county and then your council of government’s website.
“Grant funds can have complicated reporting and accountability requirements,” shared Ginny Lewis Ford, executive director of the Texas Association of Regional Councils. “It is important that any recipient of federal or state funds has strong internal controls in place to manage broadband grants effectively and efficiently,” she continued. “Regional councils have extensive experience with grant administration and, working collaboratively, can assist counties to meet performance and accountability requirements.”
In its recently released Texas Broadband Plan 2022, the Broadband Development Office acknowledged that public feedback highlighted the importance of regional collaboration to “pool resources, increase efficiencies, avoid redundancies, and streamline processes.” Regional councils of governments, or COGs, are a trusted space to engage stakeholders and provide guidance. Reach out to your region to discuss its plan for working together to achieve your county’s broadband goals. We look forward to continuing work with the BDO on a regional basis to engage elected officials and other community partners as we all navigate this challenge together. – TARC Executive Director Ginny Lewis Ford