A proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot could help bridge Tarrant County’s digital divide by bolstering the largest federal public investment in broadband, according to officials.
Proposition 8, if approved by voters in Texas, would create the $1.5 billion Texas Broadband Infrastructure Fund to cover broadband initiatives. This funding will come straight from the state Legislature and will supplement the $3.3 billion the state of Texas received from the federal government through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
Connor Sadro, a transportation planner with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said this is “probably the first and last time you will ever see this magnitude of public funding for broadband availability.”
“You’re looking at the biggest swath of just ‘Let’s get people connected with technology,’” Sadro said.
Not only will this Texas Broadband Infrastructure Fund help match the federal funds, but it will also supplement projects to update and modernize the 911 system and utility poles in rural areas.
Tarrant County Commissioner Manny Ramirez, who has been vocal about bringing more broadband to the county’s rural pockets, said access to this additional money would be a huge step in bridging the digital divide.
The digital divide is the gap between those who have affordable access, skills and support to effectively engage online and those who do not.
Ramirez described broadband infrastructure as no different from roads, bridges, water lines and even electricity.
“It is a piece of critical infrastructure that our citizens expect and deserve to increase their quality of life. Particularly in rural areas where there’s no built-out access because the economics don’t work for private companies to build those networks,” Ramirez said.
The state’s comptroller’s office, which oversees the Broadband Development Office created by the state Legislature in 2021, would determine where the money from the fund would go, based on a map that highlights which communities are unserved or underserved.
This state map identifies areas that are unserved, underserved and served based on a certain internet speed. It is different from the broadband map put together by the FCC.
According to the Texas broadband development map, the city of Fort Worth is fully served.
City staff gave a presentation to council members in September stating that 17% of Fort Worth residents don’t have access to high-speed internet and 8% have no internet access.
Staff also identified gaps in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods like Las Vegas Trail, Como, Marine Creek, Stop Six, Rosemont and Ash Crescent.
Texas Broadband Development Map Criteria
- “Served” refers to locations where max speed is greater than or equal to 100/20 Mbps for downloads/uploads
- “Underserved” refers to locations where max speed is between 25/3 and 100/20 Mbps for downloads/uploads
- “Unserved” refers to locations where max speed is less than 25/3 Mbps for downloads/uploads
Source: Texas Broadband Development Office
Past conversations looked at incorporating broadband to help with the East Lancaster corridor revitalization efforts and connect people to work and educational opportunities.
Sadro said it may surprise people that some areas of Fort Worth that are considered underserved or unserved — the East Lancaster corridor for example — are not eligible for the funding, according to the state broadband map.
But the map’s designations are not final. Cities, counties and internet providers can challenge the state map if they believe there is an error regarding an area’s access to the internet.
“That is a heavily debated federal and state topic of how are we measuring the eligibility of certain areas,” Sadro said. “Just a couple of months ago, the FCC map went through its challenge process and added over 1 million new serviceable locations that were not previously on that map.”
Kevin Gunn, IT solutions director for the city of Fort Worth, said one of the reasons why some underserved areas are mischaracterized is because of self-reporting by service providers.
The city plans to challenge the state map to add the areas it has identified as underserved and unserved, Gunn said.
“There will be a challenge process for the state map, for us to work with the state and the service providers and say, ‘OK, what’s the ideal speed delivered, and what are the real-world speeds that customers can get at these locations?” Gunn said.
In the meantime, the city is working to put together a broadband plan to help connect service providers to areas in need of internet access.
The city put out a request for proposal back in February 2022 to find a provider to “design, build, test and operate a fiber network that can meet the needs of government, residential and business subscribers.”
The city will work with a service provider to add cabling for community and government facilities such as libraries and fire stations in neighborhoods in need.
“A big obstacle for internet service providers is getting the fiber path close to those neighborhoods. In partnering with us, we’re kind of filling in that gap and then (providers) are using their own private funding to build-out to each of the houses or apartments in those neighborhoods,” Gunn said.
Tarrant County has expressed interest in partnering with the city on this fiber plan.
Bringing broadband access to all parts of the community makes Texas more economically competitive, healthier and educated, Ramirez said.
“This truly is one of those opportunities for a win-win,” he said.
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.