The pandemic drove home the need for a project the East Texas Council of Governments began working on before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the world — helping to plan improvements to regional broadband access.
In some area counties, that work is nearing completion, including in Gregg and Harrison counties, with ETCOG then poised to assist in making the planned projects a reality by helping connect the counties with funding opportunities.
“Rural broadband is such a dire need, and if the pandemic didn’t emphasize that enough, I don’t know what would,” said Chuck Vanderbilt, ETCOG’s community and economic development manager. He described hearing stories of families in some areas of East Texas who had to park near a courthouse or a local Dairy Queen to have internet access after COVID-19 hit and parents and children were at home, working and attending school online.
“It’s an economic development issue, no doubt, but we know that it is a workforce issue; it’s a health issue for telemedicine; it’s an education issue, and it’s a quality of life issue,” Vanderbilt said.
ETCOG works to coordinate between federal, state and local governments, providing a variety of services and helping communities plan for the future. That includes overseeing the East Texas Economic Development District under the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
It was through the Economic Development Administration that ETCOG in 2019 embarked on the $536,000 total regional broadband planning project, including a $375,000 grant and $161,000 local match.
Broadband provides high-speed internet through a variety of ways — fiber optics, wireless, cable, DSL and satellite.
“We started this effort prior to the pandemic,” Vanderbilt said. “It’s not like we didn’t know it was an issue before for all the same reasons. It really was just magnified over the past two years.”
ETCOG serves 14 counties: Anderson, Camp, Cherokee, Gregg, Harrison, Henderson, Marion, Panola, Rains, Rusk, Smith, Upshur, Van Zandt and Wood.
Vanderbilt said the process to plan projects started with county judges appointing a committee to help identify three to five projects in each county that ultimately play into a “middle mile project” that would serve the entire 14-county region. The “middle mile project” consists of segments of broadband service that will connect counties to each other, opening up access to internet providers that want to provide service in areas that might not have it or might not have competition.
“The middle mile project is something to benefit the entire region and create some redundancy that is there in case of emergencies. In case lines get cut, there’s work-arounds,” Vanderbilt said. “Now, if it happens, it means the internet is out until however long it gets fixed.”
He said ETCOG also understands that internet access isn’t just an availability issue.
“It’s an affordability issue. We’re really aware of that,” he said, but increasing availability can affect affordability, and ETCOG is “agnostic” about internet providers, not favoring one over the other through this process. It’s really about who is willing to help a community move forward.
The 14 counties are in different stages of the process at this point. He said ETCOG anticipates full cooperation in each county, although they’re advancing at different speeds.
“Four or five are really making progress. Others are still in the thick of it,” he said.
“Gregg and Harrison counties are probably the furthest along,” Vanderbilt said. “In Gregg County, the process that remains is our team is kind of reconciling the maps that have been provided by the broadband providers there to make sure the middle mile segments that are proposed don’t overlap too much.”
Then the stakeholders will confirm they agree with the final projects, and budgets will be developed. The plans also will be presented to each county’s commissioners courts. All of the demographic information a community needs to submit applications to the various available funding sources also will be provided. ETCOG also is working with consultants TDC2 and Design Nine throughout the planning process.
“My office will be there to support (the counties),” Vanderbilt said, and ETCOG is in particular “cognizant” of counties that don’t have an economic development corporation or other staff members who can oversee the grant applications.
Vanderbilt added that he hopes the effort continues to increase awareness of the region’s broadband needs, so people will continue to bring the issue up to their elected officials.
“I think we’re just going to see continued funding for it,” Vanderbilt said. “Our goal here is to capture it for the 14 counties we serve.”