1.8 million Texans lack broadband Internet access, and most of them live in rural Texas. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars could become available, but the government may not have an accurate picture of who has access and who doesn't. This is part two of a multi-part series focusing on Connecting Rural Texas.
If the total number of people in the U.S. lacking broadband internet access was a state — at around 25 million — it would be roughly the population of Texas.
But many argue the maps showing who has access and who doesn’t are wrong. And it could impact who gets money and grants to increase access. Some Texas communities are creating their own maps to correct the record.
The Federal Communications Commission’s fixed broadband maps say 24 million people lack access around the country, but a report out last month from Microsoft showed more than 162 million people don’t use high-speed internet.
“You don’t have to be good at math to know there is a big delta between 162 and 24,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner with the FCC.
She said the maps were built with faulty data. They were based on a form internet providers fill out called the FCC Form 477. If a provider says one person has access in a census tract, then the whole tract is considered served.
“In lots of places they overstate coverage, and that’s a problem, because we have some resources that we all want to devote to make sure broadband reaches rural communities,” she said. “And if we don’t have accurate maps, it’s not clear we’re going to be able to send those resources to the right places.”
The problems of the fixed broadband maps extended into the mobile broadband coverage maps as well.
“Garbage in, garbage out. Utterly worthless. They stink,” said Tim Donovan, senior vice president for the Competitive Carriers Association, highlighting the committee’s previous bi-partisan comments at an April Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue of mobile broadband maps.
Many argues that these broadband maps— which were updated after three years in 2018— need to be updated again. About $7.5 million has been set aside for the Commerce Department to work on them, but Rosenworcel said the FCC should not rely only on self-reporting from ISPs but to crowdsource the data.
Residents of Deep East Texas think they are one of those areas where the FCC has it wrong and are doing just that.
“We’re trying to not just say ‘your maps are wrong.’ We’re trying to demonstrate and prove we do not have coverage here,” said Lonnie Hunt, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, or DETCOG.
DETCOG encompasses 12 rural Texas counties and about 380,000 people. They have set aside $500,000 to research coverage and survey residents to figure out what access actually looks like and a plan on how to get it in their communities.
Some of that money is going to a company to look at broadband coverage, and some goes toward public forums like a recent one at the public housing authority in Corrigan, Texas.
Big rig trucks rumble down the highway loaded down with trees on their way to the mill in the lumber town of 1,500 people. It’s tucked between the piney woods of East Texas alongside the Davy Crockett National Forest, about 90 minutes north of Houston.
Hunt talks about the lack of investment by for-profit companies. He said they can’t make it profitable enough to connect sparsely populated areas.
“If we sit around and wait for the telephone company or the cable company or the federal government or anyone else to do it for us, it’s never gonna get done— we’re always going to be at the tail end of the food chain,” Hunt said.
A handful of older people clad in denim sat in the cream and hunter-green cinder block room listening and talking about their struggle to gain internet access. Marlene Taylor lives miles off the main highway — which is where most providers are. She worried how fundamental internet has become to even seeing a doctor.
“The medical field, if you are a new patient. Go online. Fill out the forms. What if you don’t have internet,” said Taylor. “They encourage you to go online to get your test results. To go on their online portal.”
The FCC said they have three broadband providers, but many people in the area said they don’t have any. The most options run along the highway, but head east or west from the highway for even a few minutes into the piney woods. In addition to a phone dropping coverage, broadband options evaporate. A satellite service is available for these far-flung farms and ranches, but residents say it is slow and costly.
“Service that exceeded your expectations, what would be willing to pay for it?” Hunt said to the room.
Their preliminary study results show people in Deep East Texas pay 400 percent more per megabyte of speed than those in the Dallas suburbs.
“If we had more providers and had more competition it would be better,” said Johnna Gibson, mayor of Corrigan.
Without competition, pricing and service lag she said. On the day of this meeting the phone and internet service at public housing had been down for hours.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said.
When this happened six months ago, she spent four days on the phone with AT&T.
They mayor also wasn’t surprised they were spending more for less in Corrigan.
“Just because we are in a small city, I am accustomed to that. That’s how we get done on everything,” she said.
But they may have a shot at changing that with broadband, Gibson said— so people better fill out their surveys.