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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Rural broadband gaps

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Photo by Graphic by Alexis Will

The range for broadband score is 0 to 2, with 2 having high broadband available and 0 having the least, according to Brookings Institution. 

The digital divide in Bryan-College Station and across central Texas has narrowed in recent years due to a variety of public and private efforts, but significant gaps remain at the household level.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 39 percent of rural Americans lack broadband access to a fixed service with speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. At the same time, only four percent of urban Americans lack that type of broadband access.
Broadband refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access, as defined by the FCC. The medium can be coaxial cable, optical fiber, radio or twisted pair.
As of 2017, based on a combination of broadband availability and subscription (adoption), Texas’s 17th congressional district, that stretches from Waco to Bryan-College Station, has a composite broadband score of about 0.25 to 0.5 according to the Brookings Institution, where 2 is the most available and connected and 0 is the least.
In 2010, Texas A&M University was awarded a $6.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant by the Department of Commerce, on behalf of The Texas A&M University System’s Trans-Texas Videoconference Network — the wide area data and interactive communications network that serves the campuses and agencies of the Texas A&M University System. Along with $3 million in matching contributions, the grant funded the construction of Texas Pipes — a fiber optic network with minimum data rates of one gigabit per second (Gbps) and is capable of supporting up to 40 Gbps.
“The project included building 151 miles of fiber throughout the state of Texas and connecting 45 Community Anchor Institutions (CAI), more than originally anticipated at project inception,” said Lacey Baze, associate director of the Texas A&M Division of Information Technology Product Strategy & Communication. “The CAIs are primarily located in rural, underserved areas of Texas.”
The initiative, which was completed in 2013, extended broadband service to Texas A&M University System campuses and the surrounding communities in Bryan-College Station, Canyon, Commerce, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Killeen, Kingsville, Laredo, Prairie View, San Antonio, Stephenville, Texarkana and Waco, Prairie View A&M University and the area immediately adjacent to Fort Hood. “The project predicted that the network would serve 114,000 students and 27,000 faculty and staff, as well as connect the University Police Departments to the State of Texas Department of Public Safety to enhance security and safety within these communities and help enable the Next Generation 911 network,” Baze said.
Gigabit broadband technology relates to 1 Gbps (or 1,000 Mbps) download and upload speeds to residential users. In 2015, over 80 percent of the College Station population lived in neighborhoods with gigabit-speed service available as stated in “The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook: A Guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable, Abundant Bandwidth, Version 2.0” by Blair Levin and Denise Linn. At the same time, a large number of consumers in Central Texas have one or no wired Internet options available to them with 21,000 people facing this issue in College Station alone.
According to the broadband provider database BroadbandNow, there are only four residential fixed-line broadband providers in College Station — only two of which have a city coverage greater than 80 percent. The cable company Suddenlink is the only one that offers Internet speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, at a cost of $49.99 for 100 Mbps, with an actual average download speed of 50.7 Mbps. The closest comparable competitor in terms of price and speed is the digital subscriber line company Frontier Communications with a speed of up to 12 Mbps at $29.99 for 12 Mps.
“I use Suddenlink and it is pretty bad,” supply chain management sophomore Walid Belkhatir said. “It gets really slow at times and generally my Internet at home is much quicker and reliable.”
The College Station City Council is leasing spare city-owned unused, or dark, fiber optic cable under an ordinance the council approved in March of 2015 in order to bring competition into the local high-speed Internet market dominated by Suddenlink. The Internet service providers that enter into these agreements pay an annual fee that includes maintenance for the cables.
WireStar, a local Internet service provider, intends to offer download speeds of up to 1 Gbps by use of such a lease, initially for commercial use only. They will pay $21,580 annually to the city.
A&M’s next broadband project after Texas Pipes will focus on the surrounding areas of Bryan-College Station.
“Actually, we are working with another similar project right now, referred to as the Brazos Valley Council of Government Broadband Project,” Texas A&M Academy for Advanced Telecommunications and Learning Technologies Associate Director Walter Magnussen, who was involved in Texas Pipes planning, said.
The projected cost for the new initiative is about $26 million in federal and matching funds.
“The cog is instead of Commerce money, they are utilizing FCC funds to build up fiber to six counties surrounding Bryan-College Station,” Magnussen said.
Magnussen emphasized the rural broadband gap faced by communities in places like Central Texas and the need for government intervention.
“The federal government is recognizing that as they deregulated telecom companies and telecom companies typically are going to the high profit areas and the high profit areas are not rural America,” Magnussen said. “So unless there are future projects like these, rural America will get farther and farther behind. We are ranked in the thirties in terms of broadband connectivity worldwide. We are way down internationally and quite frankly, it’s getting a little bit worse all the time.”
In 2011, the United States lost its leading position in terms of installed national bandwidth potential to China according to a 2016 paper by University of California, communications professor Martin Hilbert. The difference for the two countries in 2014 was 29 percent versus 13 percent of the global total, respectively.

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