The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed a serious gap in the availability of cost-effective, reliable broadband service to students faced with distance learning or in-person classes with the potential for contracting Covid-19 and potentially spreading it to family members at home.
In metropolitan areas, reliable broadband service is available, usually from multiple carriers. The issue is cost. In the Arlington Independent School District, more than 70% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. To qualify, a family must be receiving SNAP (food stamps), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or be under income thresholds established by the federal government. Reliable broadband service is often not affordable for these families.
School districts are responding to the issues in the metropolitan areas by supplying students with laptops and WiFi hot spots. Some broadband providers have made special offers to school districts to make direct service available to needy families at greatly reduced prices.
In rural Texas, the issue is the availability of signal. Texas has great expanses of area with too few people to make providing broadband service a profitable venture for commercial providers. Access to broadband in rural Texas is also a medical issue. Hospitals are closing. There is a shortage of medical personnel. Telemedicine, for situations where the physician does not need to touch the patient, has proven to be safe and effective. It does not work without broadband.
Funding rural telephone networks where it is otherwise too costly for service providers is one of many purposes of the Texas Universal Service Fund. The money for the fund comes from a charge on phone bills. The fund is running out of money and needs a rate increase from the Public Utility Commission to survive at least until the Legislature meets next year.
Ross Ramsey wrote an article framing the situation for the Texas Tribune. You can CLICK HERE to learn more.