AUSTIN — There are times when volunteer firefighter Jerry Bell could really use a broadband internet connection to find water or to pull up Google Maps for a better fix on his location. 

But because Bell and his fellow Lake Palo Pinto Volunteer Fire Department members often find themselves battling a blaze miles from town, that’s not available.

“Once you get out in the field you can’t get anything,” said Bell, who lives in Gordon, a city of about 470 people, 65 miles west of Fort Worth in Palo Pinto County. “For rural counties, this is a problem.”

About 94 percent of Texas households have access to broadband service, but only 70 percent of rural Texas households have broadband access, and a lack of granular data means that the available figures may not show the full extent of the problem

The lack of rural broadband internet access — technically, broadband is at least a 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed, but one FCC definition characterizes it as “high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access” — has become significant enough that Texas politicians are now mentioning the need for improvement in speeches and featuring it on their websites.

At their recent state party convention in Fort Worth, Democrats Kim Olson, candidate for agriculture commissioner, and senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke both made a point of talking about the need for ramping up rural internet access in Texas in their stump speeches.

“Rural Texas feels forgotten,” Olson said in a telephone interview. “Cities get the resources; rural Texans, they should have the same capacity to compete.”

The state has been involved in extending high-speed internet into rural Texas since at least 2009, when Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples, a Republican, organized a broadband task force that included the Public Utility Commission, other state agencies, private-sector representatives.

According to a 2013 Texas Rural Impact Report from the state’s agriculture department, “the highest ranking strategy perceived to have a positive economic development effect is improving access to high-speed internet in the community.”

Yet the urban-rural divide persists.

“There’s quite a disparity there,” Chris Pedersen, vice president for development and planning of the nonprofit Connected Nation, said. “It’s kind of shocking.”

Taking maximum advantage of telemedicine, economic development and online learning all require broadband access.

“It’s not just visiting with grandma in another state,” via the internet, Olson said. “It’s an economic issue.

“Education? Almost 80 percent of homework, you’ve got to get it of the ’net.”

The implications for Texas agriculture loom large.

Farmers rely on digital communications for a range of services, market data and information.

Farmers can run small unmanned aerial vehicles over fields to read nitrogen levels and spray crops, or run the gates on the pends in which they corral feral hogs in remotely, provided they’re connected.

“It’s all doable,” Olson said, “if we bring broadband out there to those farmers out in the middle of nowhere.”

The problem is, providers often lack financial incentives to invest money — say, $10,000 — to install broadband in a remote location where there may be only two houses at the end of dirt road in rural Texas, paying $50 each per month, Pedersen said.

“When it’s going to happen here, I don’t know,” said Bell, referring to bringing broadband into his neck of the Palo Pinto County, which has a total population of about 28,000. “Thirty thousand vs. 3 million: you don’t have to do the math to know who’s going get the juice.”

An increasing number of states are using public-private partnerships to bring their rural residents broadband.

“There’s really growing momentum to make something happen,” in Texas, Pedersen said. “Regardless of where you stand, people are recognizing there’s a need to improve connectivity.

“It’s something everybody can support.”

 

John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI newspapers and websites. Reach him at jaustin@cnhi.com.

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