Texas Rural Funders Plays an Essential Role in State Broadband Efforts

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Digital Beat

Texas Rural Funders Plays an Essential Role in State Broadband Efforts

Adrianne B. Furniss

In 2019, Texas Rural Funders, a statewide philanthropic collaborative of 39 funders focused on bringing attention and resources to rural Texas, learned that Texas was one of six states in the United States that had neither a statewide broadband plan nor a broadband office.

This put Texas communities at a disadvantage; federal agencies deducted points when scoring broadband grant applications, lowering communities’ chances of receiving the critical funding needed. This is crucial in a state where 83 percent of the land mass is rural and state and federal funds and policy solutions are required to achieve the scale needed to reach as many rural Texans as possible.

Texas Rural Funders sprang into action to gather data, engage in marketing and communications efforts, form coalitions, create resources, and support rural leaders to affirm the need for a statewide broadband office. House Bill 5, forming the Broadband Development Office at the Texas Comptroller’s office, passed in 2021.

What did Texas Rural Funders and their partner organizations do to achieve this success? First, they funded broadband infrastructure mapping and broadband speed tests in all 254 Texas counties to understand where broadband service is and, more importantly, is not available. Armed with good data, Texas Rural Funders could convene and connect, urging partners to coalesce around necessary programs and policies. Specifically:

  • It commissioned Broadband Stories from Rural Texas in 2021 with policy recommendations showcasing rural communities working hard to obtain broadband.
  • It engaged a marketing and communications firm that wrote letters, op-eds, and other materials designed to highlight rural broadband needs.
  • It co-founded, with the Greater Houston Partnership and Texas 2036, the Digital Texas Coalition, convening more than 40 urban and rural partners to speak with one voice about the need for a broadband office and plan. Ninety organizations signed a letter to the legislature affirming the need for a statewide broadband office.
  • It undertook policy and advocacy efforts during the 2021 legislative session and delivered a training for 50 individuals who highlighted the importance of rural Texans’ broadband needs and experiences with elected leaders.
  • It coordinated a broadband awards ceremony to recognize individuals who worked hard to advance broadband during the legislative session.

Texas Rural Funders has built on its earlier efforts to engage and use its philanthropic platform to continue working to ensure that the broadband needs of rural Texans are understood and addressed. To support the Texas Broadband Development Office, Texas Rural Funders held a summit in May 2022 to highlight the current state of broadband in Texas and resources for Texas communities. In addition, Texas Rural Funders is:

  • Encouraging rural communities and residents to participate in the public engagement process. This will focus on giving people information about hearings or information sessions, grant processes, and resources about how to build coalitions and find funding.
  • Working closely with its mapping and data partner to improve and increase use of the high-quality data set by organizations in education, health care, and workforce. An upcoming brief will highlight how Operation Connectivity at the Texas Education Agency employed the data to produce maps showing schools where students and families are disconnected. A second brief will showcase how the Texas State Office of Rural Health surveyed rural hospitals to understand the status of their broadband capacity and connectivity in order to provide technical assistance to these critical rural institutions.
  • Telling the stories of rural communities engaging in broadband work in Get Connected Y’all: A Guide for Texas Communities on Securing Broadband, which highlights best practices and shares lessons learned.
  • Continuing engagement with the Digital Texas Coalition to identify areas of collective need and opportunity in urban and rural areas as the broadband office and plan are initiated.
  • Gearing up for the 2023 legislative session by conducting a state-level study to determine a strategic funding approach—based on best practices and tailored to Texas—that will identify the ways that Texas may derive the greatest impact from its investment of public funds (both federal allocations and the state’s own commitments). The report will be presented at the Capitol in Fall 2022, prior to the legislative session.

Finally, by developing further strategic partnerships with organizations including nonprofits, state agencies, and businesses that are engaged in innovative efforts to expand knowledge of and access to broadband—such as the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, United Ways of Texas, electric cooperatives, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, among others—Texas Rural Funders is amplifying its voice and multiplying its initial investments to promote broadband ubiquity in Texas and build systems of digital inclusion that give all rural Texans the benefits of being online.

We appreciate the contributions Kelty Garbee, PhD, Executive Director, Texas Rural Funders, who helped us on this article.

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

More in this series

These articles and much more in Pathways to Digital Equity: How Communities Can Reach Their Broadband Goals—and How Philanthropy Can Help

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Adrianne B. Furniss.