I have lived in rural Texas for the better part of my life and all of that within the 134 counties that comprise West Texas. For the past 20 years I have worked in telecommunications, all the while being a union member and local officer representing the workers in a jurisdiction covering rural Northwest Texas. In that time, I have seen many great changes with wireless and internet connectivity for folks that live in the “tall tower” areas of Texas, while those of us out here have scraped by.
A little fact about how we rate in the world: The United States ranks 11th in the world in internet connectivity with Norway ranked first. Norway could fit well within the 134 counties of West Texas. Other countries of Romania, Thailand, and Switzerland are also on the list, could also fit in the 134 counties, and are listed above the United States.
It is past time to get the fiber in the ground and start giving everyone equal access to the information highway. Some of us heard stories from our grandparents or parents about when rural electrification came to these parts. It was because folks from our part of the country fought to get the Rural Electrification Act (REA) passed back in the 1930’s. The broadband issue is today’s REA.
So why should we be making so much sand about it now? Let’s look at what we have been going through in the past year. Schools had to send the kids home to do school via the internet. In some areas this was ok, but in many rural parts of the state it was nearly impossible. Our children, the future resources of this state, were denied an education.
Medical care started becoming more internet driven over the past several years, and in this last year, telemedicine became the norm. In some areas, due to no broadband infrastructure, cell service could hardly deliver for the patient. With a true broadband structure, local doctors could visit with specialists on the internet and discuss ways to proceed with your medical care.
Small business has been impacted in our area for a long time with national chains coming to town and driving down profits. Many small businesses could start to compete for customers on the internet with improved access. Take my wife as one example - and I know many more - she likes to shop local and if she can’t find what she is looking for she goes to places like Etsy and Pinterest. Many of the people on those sites have their own small business and use those sites to reach more people. Imagine taking your small business onto the internet if you just had the speed to run it.
The expansion of fiber-backed broadband would create a long-lasting economic impact to an area in desperate need of a good shot in the arm. It would create and protect jobs in the expansion and maintenance of the infrastructure. It would help ranchers and farmers with everything from inventory of livestock to setting watering schedules from a tablet, as seen in a commercial run by AT&T a few years ago. Your children would have access to many learning opportunities that would help them with their school assignments. Have you tried to help you child with math homework lately? I hope you fared better than I did. We have all been told for years that it is coming. Well, it is time for the politicians and companies to quit running their mouths and get the fiber in the ground!
Broadband expansion will also allow the telecommunication companies to expand wireless coverage. How many times have you been on the phone and all of the sudden the call is over? You get to wait until you reach a hill and then try the call again to only lose it at the bottom of the hill. Instead of our phones becoming an expensive paperweight between Benjamin and Crosbyton heading to Lubbock, let’s be able to use our phone - especially if you come upon an accident or just need help. Imagine being able to call out and get someone to come to the lease to pull you out of the mud. I could have used that a few times.
The thing is, all of this is completely possible and the governor has even made it a priority. However, we need to make sure that broadband expansion is done properly. Currently in the legislature, Senate Bill (5) addresses broadband. This bill would create a committee completely outside of governmental oversight appointed by the governor to address the issue. I think the winter storm of this year shows how poor of an idea that is. The Public Utility Commission or the Comptrollers’ office would be better suited to handle this, as they have to answer to the representatives we send to Austin. We need to make sure that broadband expansion will serve the needs of all our communities, towns, and counties.
In rural Texas we are being denied access to healthcare. Our children are being denied an education. Ranchers and farmers are being denied technology that could save the family ranch or farm. Small businesses are being denied access to new customers and improved profit. Struggling communities are being denied access to an entire world of employment opportunities. All of us are being denied access to make a call for assistance in dark areas along major highways. Good, strong broadband infrastructure is the answer.
John Richie is the Vice-President/Wireless of CWA Local 6200 and serves as President of the West Texas Coalition of Democrats.