Congressman, area officials discuss Eliminate Digital Divide Act
By LYNETTE SOWELL
A bipartisan piece of federal legislation introduced by Congressman Roger Williams will hopefully pave the way for all city and county residents to have access to high-speed internet in the future.
Recently, Congressman Williams met in Copperas Cove with local city and county leaders to talk about the Eliminate the Digital Divide Act.
The bill would create a $10 billion state broadband program that would allow governors to direct federal dollars to unserved and low-income areas so they can carry out individual broadband networks and receive low-cost broadband services.
Williams said that more than two million Texas residents didn’t have access to reliable internet before the pandemic, according to the Texas comptroller, while 18 million Americans nationwide had no access at all, per a 2020 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report. “Now in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis, the need for broadband access to resources and healthcare delivery has never been more important,” Williams said.
CCISD Superintendent Joe Burns said that one of the challenges as educators, particularly during this time of pandemic, is making sure that every district student has access to high-quality curriculum, resources, and high-quality teachers.
He said that one-fourth of the district’s teachers are involved in virtual learning for students, with more than 1,000 learning at home.
“Most of those students, if they live in the city proper, can gain access to internet. But, we’re a rural community, we service a large number of students who live outside city boundaries. There’s places in our county where you can’t even get a cell phone signal,” Burns said. “Eliminating the digital divide is critically important, not only for our students to have access to high-speed internet, but there is also the issue of medical care ad Teledoc services.”
Burns mentioned his own in-laws, in their 80s, who live in southeast Texas, and cannot Teledoc due to the area where they live having no high-speed broadband internet.
Coryell County Judge Roger Miller agreed, stating that the bill gives notice that not just internet, but high-speed broadband internet is no longer a luxury item.
“It is and has been for several years a vital part of our national and local infrastructure, as important as clean water, reliable electric service, and roadways,” Roger said, also noting that in smaller communities such as Evant and Oglesby, as many as 60 percent of their students do not have wired internet connection available to them and that they will continue to be penalized for living in a rural area.
“No child’s education should be jeopardized simply because of where their parents choose to live,” Miller said, adding that healthcare systems and economic development opportunities are similarly disadvantaged without broadband.
Copperas Cove Mayor Bradi Diaz echoed Burns’ and Miller’s comments.
“Copperas Cove has a number of neighborhoods with broadband unserved and underserved households. The Eliminate the Digital Divide Act will allow broadband service providers to build out networks in areas of Copperas Cove such as western and southern portions of Copperas Cove.”
City Manager Ryan Haverlah said that the bill will be substantial for the city and county.
He gave the example of a resident who moved to Copperas Cove, works in Austin, and did not have service at his house in the middle of Copperas Cove.
“For that resident to get internet, it was going to cost him $12,000 – for one connection in Copperas Cove…there are huge holes of service in the county.”
Lampasas County Judge Randall Hoyer said that better broadband service would bring healthy competition locally, and talked about the time that the one line of internet into Lampasas had been cut, leaving the entire city without internet service for 26 hours, bringing the city to a standstill.
Gatesville’s Mayor Gary Chumley said having good Internet was a quality of life issue, and that his community has high school and college students who drive to Waco for high-speed internet to take exams, because if they get kicked offline during an exam, they don’t pass.
It is an issue he has heard the most about during his time as mayor.
“This will allow for the public-private partnership we’ve been trying to make happen,” Chumley said. “I’ve been told by our provider, ‘We are a for-profit organization. It’s not cost effective for us to go into the neighborhoods.’”
Williams said that it was crucial the legislation passes.
“It’s bipartisan, and we don’t have much of that in Washington, but this needs to be passed.
“People in the big cities don’t understand all this, because everything just happens. But when you’re out here in the rural areas, it’s a little different.”
As far as how quickly this bill could get to the President’s desk, Williams said that although Congress is not in session now, they will be heading back after the election, and that hopefully they can get it to the president by mid-December, or if not then, shortly after the 117th Congress convenes in January.
Williams wants the bill to be a standalone piece of legislation after it leave the House and Senate.
“This is not something that should be wrapped up in other bill. There is no debate. Everybody agrees,” Williams said.