Texans last week voted to approve Proposition 8, amending their state constitution to create a broadband infrastructure fund that will finance broadband and telecommunications projects. It wasn't a close vote. According to The New York Times, 69% -- over 1.7 million Texans -- voted in favor of the constitutional amendment.
The vote in Texas reflects a growing movement in the US to expand high-speed internet access, even in areas where it's been hard to come by. For instance, there's a national $42.5 billion program funded by the Biden administration's 2021 infrastructure law that aims at closing what's called the digital divide, ensuring that everyone in the US eventually has access to faster, affordable connections. The path to that future isn't quite clear, however. A New York Times article in September pointed out that deploying broadband infrastructure in rural areas is costly, due to far-apart homes and terrain challenges, as well as labor shortages.
And the COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on just how vital broadband connections are these days. As the pandemic forced people to stay home, everyday chores and professional work became even more difficult for those without a strong connection.
"The tragic global pandemic crystallized the consequences of being disconnected from the internet," said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for national broadband access.
Siefer points out how it's almost impossible to accomplish even simple chores without internet access.
"Using the internet used to be a choice," she said. "Now, if one does not have access to and use the internet, either they cannot accomplish necessary tasks or someone takes care of those online tasks for them. Try calling a government agency or corporation for customer service rather than using their online services. You'll need to factor in a lot of time and patience."
What will the Texas amendment do?
The new fund's goal is to make broadband and telecommunications services more available and accessible to Texans.
"Access to high-speed internet is now essential for employment, health care, education and government, but is not evenly available throughout Texas, especially in rural areas," Kayla Nixon, of the League of Women Voters of Texas, said in a video released before the election.
The proposition allows the creation of a $5 billion fund to expand high-speed internet throughout the sprawling state, which has a population of 30 million, second only to California. The fund is financed through money allocated by the state legislature, gifts, grants and investment earnings. The money, along with funds from the federal government's Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, will provide grants and other support for investment in high-speed internet projects.
The amendment takes effect Jan. 1, and the constitutional provision authorizing the fund will expire in 2035 unless it's extended by then.
Broadband expansion in other states
But say you're not a Texan. The state isn't alone in its support for broadband expansion.
In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed a massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes broadband-focused initiatives.
And more recently, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five US territories have been allocated funding from the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, stemming from that bill.
It's fairly easy to look up your own state or territory and see what's going on regarding broadband expansion. An official government site, Internet For All.gov, allows people to select the area where they live and see funding allocations, grant program highlights, local and federal contact information, and other grants and funding awarded within the state.
And individual states have their own websites laying out their plans for the money. Minnesota, for example, has an online form inviting comment by Dec. 12 on the state's initial proposals. Ohio's site explains why expanded broadband access matters as well as shares a state timeline showing what's happened so far.
Need a one-stop shop to look up your state, or even more than one? The federal government's Broadband USA site has collected links to initial proposals, five-year plans and digital equity plans for many states and territories.
Federal broadband projects
How is that $42 billion divided up? At a minimum, territories will get $27 million and states $107 million, up to a maximum of $3.3 billion.
That's a lot of money, but there are a lot of people in need of aid. In June, the Biden administration noted that 8.5 million households and small businesses are located in areas without access to high-speed internet.
In August, the US Department of Agriculture announced that more than $667 million in grants and loans will be given to 22 states and the Marshall Islands to connect rural residents and businesses with high-speed internet. That, too, is an initiative funded by the huge infrastructure bill, as part of the ReConnect Program, which aims to expand broadband in rural areas.
Projects in the ReConnect program must offer download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20Mbps, and must apply for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which gives eligible low-income homes a discount on internet service.
Angela Siefer of NDIA praises the ACP, a $30-a-month broadband subsidy for eligible households. That program could be ending as early as next year, however. The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that ACP funds will be exhausted by spring 2024 unless Congress moves to extend it.
"If Congress does not act, over 21 million households will lose this subsidy," Siefer said. "We cannot go back to children doing their homework in parking lots."
Other goals of the massive federal plan include $2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion efforts, $2 billion for Indigenous governments and organizations, and an additional $2 billion in grants and loans to build internet infrastructure in rural areas.
Choosing your broadband service
But even if you already live or work in an area with multiple options for broadband service, the choice can be confusing and difficult. CNET experts have assembled a cheat sheet including everything from in-depth looks at undersea broadband cables to the latest study on internet provider download speeds.
For more about broadband services, here are CNET's lists of the best high-speed internet providers of 2023, the best internet providers for streaming and the best cheap internet providers, as well as a guide on how to switch broadband providers.