TYLER, Texas (KETK) — Most East Texans take high internet speed for granted, but many rural communities are struggling for a connection to the information superhighway.
Its reach can be quite narrow for some parts of the state. Almost one out of four Texans have internet access.
The other 3 million households are left in the dark.
“Deep East Texas is rural but we are not remote, “said Lonnie Hunt, Executive Director for the Deep East Texas Council of Governments.
Millions of people, especially in rural areas are disconnected from a modern building block to a better quality of life, the internet.
Kennard ISD in Houston County has 200 students who face this problem every day.
“We have about 153 square miles of national forest located in our school district. It is very dense therefore access is very limited and spotty between cell service and internet,” said Malinda Lindsey, Kennard ISD Superintendent.
Their dual credit students even have to turn parking lots into classrooms. For many, the only place students can grab a signal is on campus or the town’s public library.
“We have many students that come up on the weekends, during the week, later in the evening and utilize our parking lot and our wifi to upload assignments,” said Lindsey.
When students were forced out of face-to-face learning during the pandemic, in school districts like Kennard ISD, remote classes only amplified existing problems.
“Our teachers came to do their Zoom so that students could come live or watch it later when they had access. Some had to do paper because they did not have access to the internet,” said Lindsey.
Requiring unconventional teaching methods for younger students, Superintendent Lindsey said this has caused grades to slip.
“It wasn’t the quality that’s going to happen in the classroom with that teacher day to day,” said Lindsey.
The college admission process is an ongoing challenge for seniors and their families to accomplish alone.
“We have a FAFSA parent night where we allow them to come up and use our technology because they do not have access at home,” said Lindsey.
Immediate help when needed for Kennard students and teachers is also top of mind for the district.
“Safety is at the forefront and we want to make sure that they have the tools that they need always first,” said Lindsey.
Without an internet connection, Lindsey said it is also extremely dangerous in emergency situations, for instance, being stranded on the side of the road
“Our buses go all the way over to [State Highway] 21 and very dense areas where it is very rural,” said Lindsey.
After 911 is called, it could take 20 to 25 minutes for emergency services to reach them.
Hunt said long distances could be traded by logging on.
“I don’t know if we will ever have enough medical professionals for our region, but I know we could take advantage of telehealth services,” said Hunt.
A traditional doctor’s office visit could turn into a visit on the computer screen.
“If we can bring the resources to them in their home, then we have a much better opportunity to address some of the emotional and behavioral issues that can help prevent a lot of those other problems,” said Hunt.
It all requires a dependable internet service.
“Too many people will never get help,” said Hunt.
Federal and state government maps show wide coverage, but Deep East Texans said loading screens prove they are not covered.
“The state map shows that most of Shelby County has internet service. When we go to Shelby County, that’s not what we hear from the folks in Shelby County, ”said Hunt.
In an effort to challenge the findings, DETCOG is asking East Texans to put their high-speed services to the test.
“In reality, there are red unserved areas in Deep East Texas and this is what we are trying to prove with this speed test and survey,” said Hunt.
Click here to find the survey.
“Every household has to be covered, you have to have blanket coverage. I don’t believe that some of our rural households can get coverage and have it sustained unless they are part of a larger network that takes in more than just unserved households where you know you’re gonna lose money every month,“ said Hunt.
In Austin, House District 9 Representative Trent Ashby is trying to move the needle this legislative session.
The Deep East Texas representative proposed House Bill 9.
“Today I stand before you seeking to redouble our commitment to closing the digital divide in Texas,” said Ashby.
HB 9 is the first bill in Texas to provide broadband infrastructure for the entire state.
“Trying to connect all Texans in every corner of the state and in every zip code to reliable high-speed internet,” said Ashby.
The $5 billion plan is matched by the federal government that provides access to locations based on need without having to pay an extra price.
This will create alternative affordable services in every market.
“A component that would delete the surcharge the cell phone company would see on their phone bill,” said Ashby.
House Bill 9 overwhelmingly passed the House. It’’s expected to do the same on the Senate floor. The decision will ultimately be in the hands of voters.
“It is going to require voter approval this November on the ballot to finish creating this fund and allow it to be fully funded,” said Ashby.
Ashby believes this is a one-time investment that will benefit every Texan.
“Into a pressing need for the state of Texas and for all Texans and so this is why this investment makes a lot of sense,” said Ashby.
This bill will close the gap to make sure people under the dense cover of the piney woods are not left off the grid.
“We are just looking forward to that day we can have broadband and provide that access to our students and families here in Kennard,” said Lindsey.
Ashby is expecting all Texans to be connected in the next 5 to 7 years and East Texans to see measurable progress in the next 2 to 4 years.