BIG COUNTRY, Texas (BIGCOUNTRYHOMEPAGE) – On this week’s edition of Big Country Politics, News Director Manny Diaz spoke with Doug Williamson, the former editor of Abilene Reporter-News and Director of Governmental Affairs at Abilene Chamber of Commerce, about high-speed broadband internet and its impact in rural areas.

Williamson shared that high-speed broadband is sometimes called the ‘information superhighway.’

“High-speed broadband is how fast can you go down that highway? You know, is it a six-lane, a four-lane, or a gravel road,” Williamson said.

He shared that there are some federal standards for what high-speed broadband can be, but some states have set their own standards.

“The Federal Communications Commission has set a standard for what high-speed broadband would be. Texas goes by that standard at this point. Most other states do, but there are some states that have their own standards. So the standard is 25 3, which is 25 megabytes per second as a download… Three is upload. So, if you’re going to send a picture to a friend, you upload that, and the minimum standard for that is three megabytes per second.”

Back in June, it was announced by the Biden administration that Texas was set to receive $3.3 billion in federal funds to boost broadband in the state. It would connect nearly 2.8 million households in Texas without broadband.

“We’re [The Abilene Chamber of Commerce] interested in rural broadband because anything that affects the Big Country affects Abilene. Everyone knows Abilene is a hub for medical care, for education, for retailing. And so anything that will affect out in the country will affect us,” Williamson shared. “You know, our job is to be the number one advocate for business in the area. We were talking about broadband; what that money is going to do is give broadband or provide broadband band services to folks who don’t have it. Taylor County has very, very few folks who can’t receive broadband cannot.”

However, Williamson shared that some areas of the Big Country are unable to receive broadband, such as 1-2% of Callahan County, which he finds concerning.

“I mean, this is the way you communicate. You know, this is the way you learn, and this is the way you get information out, and it’s very important,” Williamson said.

In June, Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 9, which established a $1.5 billion Texas broadband fund to extend internet access throughout Texas. Texans will have the opportunity to vote on this matter on November 7, and Williamson stated that the Chamber of Commerce supports this bill.

“We’re 100% behind that. Our Business Advocacy Council studied Proposition 8 and recommended to the board of directors that we support that, and the board unanimously voted in favor of it. Voting opens on October 23… The elections are on November 7, but that one-and-a-half billion dollars can make a real difference for folks here in the state,” Williamson explained.

Williamson shared that spreading the nearly $5 billion in state and federal funding across Texas to expand internet availability will be difficult.

“It’s gonna be tough to spread it. Let me give you this example. I was speaking this week to one of our Big Country broadband providers; his company is looking at going into a small community in the Abilene area. The community has 1500, maybe 2000 residents, which would be 500 or 600 households. It is going to cost the company $30 million to provide service for those 2000 people,” Williamson said. “Now, it’s a smaller company. So the costs are going to be greater. I mean, if you went AT&T or Verizon to do this, just their economies of scale would bring that cost down. But they’re not real interested in small communities to come into.”

Williamson stated that rural broadband has been a topic of discussion in legislation for years, and the Chamber of Commerce has been advocating for it.

“We’ve been paying a lot of attention and doing what we can. In 2021, the state legislature approved the Texas Broadband Development Office, which is charged with putting a plan together to get broadband across the state of Texas and also administering funds, different grants, and things such as that,” Willamson said. “We’ve worked with them very closely. They early on had a listening tour when they went around the state. We hosted them here in Abilene. We had about 70 people come out to give their testimony or their comments about broadband to folks. We’ve attended several regional meetings and some statewide meetings of that organization, that group we’ve signed on to coalitions both statewide and nationwide, in trying to make this happen. We’ve obviously advocated with our lawmakers, both in DC and in Austin. We’ve just been active advocates.”

He spoke on two issues when it comes to internet access: limited to no access in rural areas and the digital divide that can hinder usage.

“One of the problems is these maps that have been put out by the development office, and other groups show where it’s available, but not where you can use it… It doesn’t help you in that kind of situation,” Williamson shared. “And then the other part of that is the digital divide, you know, do you have the skills to use it? And I know in an early conversation, they were saying that to make it viable, you’re gonna have to teach classes.”

Williamson stated that providing funds for broadband internet access is a major step forward. While service providers have the ability to distribute internet access, making it sustainable is another concern.

“I really haven’t heard anything from the providers about sustainability. But they’re still trying to work out plans of how we can logistically make it happen. And my fear is that on sustainability, it’ll be like when you buy a new car, it’s great. It’s shiny; there are no dents in it. You’d love it. About three months later, as those payments are coming, you start thinking a little bit about it, and then the gas mileage isn’t what you think it’s going to be,” Willamson said. “It’s going to be money-driven, I would assume. As to the sustainability of it. Of course, the federal government currently has a program that’s providing a $30 discount for poverty-level families to be able to get internet services, and they’re looking at continuing that.”

The lack of broadband internet in rural areas of the country has been termed a national security issue by politicians like District U.S. Congressman August Pflueger. Williamson shares Pflueger’s views and believes that broadband is the key to connecting people.

“I think he’s right. You know, when he talks about it, he talks about China. That China is so far ahead of us technologically, which is true, and that’s a danger. That’s a huge danger to us,” Willaimson shared. “You think about communicating as one of the things you do with broadband, but today, there are farmers out and on their tractors plowing the field, and they’re being guided by GPS… You’ve got doctors all over the nation who are providing medical services to folks hundreds and thousands of miles away because of telehealth,” Williamson said. “Broadband is really going to be the connection between people.”