$5 billion for broadband advances in Texas Legislature after Senate OKs bill

Nancy Shanafelt shows the speed of her internet March 20, 2023, in the small East Texas town of Groveton. Texas voters will be asked to approve $5 billion in new broadband infrastructure this fall. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

Correction, : A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that legislation to establish a $5 billion fund for broadband infrastructure was headed to the governor. In fact, the Texas House must approve changes made by the Senate or go to a conference committee to strike a compromise before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott.

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Texas lawmakers took another step Thursday toward expanding internet availability in the state by passing a bill that invests $5 billion for broadband development.

House Bill 9, filed by Republican state Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, would create the Texas Broadband Infrastructure Fund. The money would be administered by the Texas comptroller’s office and would be the biggest state investment in broadband development to date. The bill is accompanied by House Joint Resolution 125, which proposes a constitutional amendment that would ask Texas voters to approve the historic amount and create the fund.

The legislation has cleared both chambers, and two amendments adopted Thursday will send it back to the House for final approval before going to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. One amendment, proposed by Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, said it was a recommendation from the Texas Comptroller's office as a way to "remove legal burdens allowing for moneys to be allocated without the need for burdensome legal filings for each individual asset."

Another amendment, proposed by Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, would direct the state's broadband office to supplement the non-federal match on a sliding scale based on where it's necessary to add additional state funds to make a project area economically feasible to serve. Nichols said this would allow the state to amplify the impact of federal funding and ensure providers have skin in the game.

The proposed legislation is an attempt to fill the gaps in broadband availability statewide. Nearly 7 million Texans don’t have reliable internet service. According to the Broadband Development Office’s map, released earlier this year, most urban areas of the state have broadband availability, while most rural areas have slow service or none at all.

“This bill will have a measurable impact on each one of your districts,” Ashby previously told lawmakers on the House floor, “no matter whether they be urban, suburban or rural.”

If voters approve the $5 billion fund in November, the money will be added to federal dollars that Texas is expected to receive for the same endeavor. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law invests $42.45 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, from which Texas will receive some money, though it has not yet been determined how much.

Disclosure: The Texas comptroller of public accounts has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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