Changing the Legislative Landscape in Texas - Episode 550 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Outreach Team Lead DeAnne Cuellar and John Speirs, Harris County, Texas' (pop. 4.7 million) Broadband Manager. Its county seat, Houston, is home to one of the largest ports in the world, and citizens and elected officials are working on projects to boost the region's economic development, climate resiliency, and connectivity to set a solid foundation for the next generation of citizens. 

Christopher, DeAnne, and John talk about what's needed to close the connectivity gap for the 180k households that don't have access to basic broadband speeds, and what will happen if the state doesn't make its legislative landscape friendly enough to get the most bang for the BEAD dollars that will begin to arrive this summer.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


John Speirs (00:07):
There is a, a shared understanding of the importance to really put a collective win above just individual wins. And it, it is really amazing to see the collaborations that have developed.

Christopher Mitchell (00:21):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell, and I'm in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was in Detroit this week as we were recording it, and there was twice I came out of a restaurant and I could not figure out where I was. It's been a whirlwind lately, but I am excited to be grounded here on Zoom talking with DeAnne Cuellar, who is our outreach team lead. Welcome Deanne.

DeAnne Cuellar (00:48):
Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell (00:50):
And Deanne has brought in a fellow, I'm assuming mega Texas enthusiast, cuz he is the broadband manager for Harris County where Houston is. John Speirs, welcome to the show.

John Speirs (01:02):
Good afternoon. Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell (01:03):
It's really exciting to, to have you here this time. I understand that we have high hopes for good legislation in Texas that's gonna help us get better Internet access out to everyone. But DeAnne is the one that has a better sense of this. So let me have you introduce the, the show and why we're gonna talk to John today. Deann.

DeAnne Cuellar (01:22):
Well, we're gonna talk to John today because he was recently a part of the Texas Digital Equity Network Eco Summit that took place a day before the National Inclusion Conference this year. And him and his office have been keeping an eye on the legislative bills that are making its way through Texas right now, ke and keeping the rest of the network updated and letting us, letting us know what to keep our hopes up about and what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention in a really great way.

John Speirs (01:50):
Thanks DeAnne and Chris. So here in Texas, this is a moment for the state to align with the federal programs that are funding broadband infrastructure and digital equity opportunities to connect all of our constituents with Internet not just some as the NTIA says. So this is our moment to ensure that we're doing all that we can as a state and as local communities and as residents to align around the shared principle of connecting everyone to reliable and affordable broadband and more in Texas. We have a part-time legislature that legislature is in session in a full swing right now. They've got a about a month left for their regular session. It's too related to tell if there will be an extended session that will be really at the determination of leadership at the legislature in governor's office for if they need to continue the work that started to get the job done.

But what's really important are those legislative items that we're monitoring that have an impact on our broadband opportunities here. This is something that there were over 20 bills proposed that involved or had a component that spoke to broadband infrastructure specifically. And now we're really monitoring one to three bills that really have an impact on local governments. And the work that we're doing here in Harris County and statewide that really matter for, for broadband. The top one, of course is our what we affectionately call as our broadband bill. So this is something that in the last legislative session that was now close to four years ago, was the initial broadband bill that was created for the purposes of standing up our state broadband office. And the statutory language also included requirements that the state create a map and that they would do research and promote the opportunity to support grants.

And the bill was adopted by the legislature and then covid happened and the world changed, and we all saw that current state of the reality for our broadband capacity. And so through this legislative session what they're calling is the HB five 2.0 broadband bill. And so this is something that is really aligned to the standards that are set forth within the bipartisan infrastructure law to ensure that our state is able to gain benefit from the significant funding that's available for the broadband equity access and deployment program. And something that will help us to ensure that we're doing all that we can for our residents to have access to those speeds that they need to live their daily life and conduct mm-hmm. <Affirmative> their business to live, work and play. And so this bill is really the, the top most important one and something that's is moving through the house is approved it, and it will hopefully be going to the Senate floor next week is what we're hearing. So that is something that we're closely monitoring. It looks like there are a number of delegations out there that are working to, to get this through. And something that is very exciting here in Texas.

Christopher Mitchell (05:47):
Well, let's set the table a little bit with Harris County. You have between four and a half and 5 million people. It looks like you know, I'm, I'm not entirely sure, but I would assume that you might have a few areas that are unserved within there. But presumably most of those people probably have some decent Internet access. So I'm curious, b before we dive back into the state legislature what are your priorities in the next several years?

John Speirs (06:14):
Our priorities in Harris County are to serve as a regional collaborator. This opportunity that we have with the bipartisan infrastructure law is a catalyst for those technological advancements across outcomes from transportation to climate resiliency. And the innovation that can happen with broadband infrastructure being put into the mix is a, a really great set of dynamics that we can develop some really cool solutions for our region to benefit from. At the end of the day, the economic mobility of our residents is a priority and advancing that economic vitality for our region is a significant priority as well. We have one of the largest ports within the nation here in Houston with the Port of Houston, and this is something that provides a great amount of commerce within the region that requires automated transportation that will benefit from those new modes that are coming online. And those ways that we can increase our efficiency as a society to promote transit that is green and automated and dynamic and something that we have not even seen what the, the future looks like. But we know that there is a lot that we can do if we develop that capacity to support additional broadband conduit and infrastructure within our, our region across jurisdictions and collectively come together as local governments to coordinate this

Christopher Mitchell (08:14):
Work. It sounds to me like like laying the foundation for the next several decades, not just figuring out how to spend a historic allocation of federal dollars <laugh> for over the next few years.

John Speirs (08:26):
That's right. This work is really at the the leading edge of where this county is and where it wants to go. And something that I, I know a number of regions are really going through this process of innovating these opportunities to scale the funding that is provided from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the, the principles going into this work of collaboration and coordination and resolving around a shared set of principles are really most important. And those are the drivers for the work. Those drivers are bringing jurisdictions that have not worked together before together in a way that we're identifying where those value propositions are for, for each locality and where we can further evaluate the, the opportunity to come together and resolve any differences in, in value propositions. Because it is something that when you bring stakeholders together, like local governments that haven't necessarily coordinated in a way like this before, you start to understand the, the difference in priorities with communities. And it is great to elevate that around those shared principles.

Christopher Mitchell (09:51):
And are you able to share an example of one of those, just to make that concrete? I'm sure there's some that are not ready for primetime, but if there's any that you could share.

John Speirs (09:59):
Yeah. So in Texas, we have a a significant rural need for broadband. Those are our unserved households and businesses and in the Harris County region which is known as the Gulf Coast region Harris County is generally well connected. We have around 180,000 households that are without any type of Internet. This is something that out of the number of households that we have, which is about 1.8 million households, that is something that's not a significant number. It's an important number when we're talking about connecting everyone. But this is something that we would not be able to really say that we're the same as one of our neighboring counties that is more rural, that has a higher percentage of unserved households. Where we do come together is around this shared opportunity and the shared opportunity that the prioritization of equity as a part of the federal funding is really a mechanism that ensures that there is a process in place for local jurisdictions to partner up in spirit and in service of this shared understanding that when we work together, we are all able to benefit from this funding and we are stronger because of it.

And so this delineation of unserved versus underserved and what our neighboring counties have versus what we have is actually what brings us together. And this is something that as a county that has more underserved households than we have unserved we're able to be of service to our regional partners so that we're able to build capacity and capability to benefit from the federal funding that's available.

DeAnne Cuellar (12:19):
John, you mentioned that we are calling this HB five 2.0, you know, here, here in Texas. Can you, can you talk a little bit more about what are the, the differences be, you know, what are the changes from 1.0 and, and 2.0? And I think it will speak to what you just also said about how we're seeing for one of the first times this collaboration between rural and urban communities because of this shared collective vision for these outcomes.

John Speirs (12:47):
The true up of the broadband bill is one that those criteria that are setting forth the, the priorities for broadband infrastructure are moving from terms of eligible and ineligible to terms that are unserved and underserved. And this ability to include language that if the federal definition of broadband speed is adjusted to a aligned with what is set forth within the bipartisan infrastructure law from 25/3 to 100/20, that that's something that would also be updated. And that language is included. And so the criteria that is really enabling us to keep up with the changing tides of how we view broadband standards is most important. And the assurance that that criteria aligns with the equity principles that are set forth within the bipartisan infrastructure law don't necessarily guarantee a lockstep with what the federal programs are doing, but it does enable a pathway for local communities here in Texas to benefit from the federal funds versus being held back from the federal funds.

Christopher Mitchell (14:18):
Do you have a sense of whether the, like I said, I think Texas is getting the single largest allocation, it may actually be something in the neighborhood of two times more than the second greatest allocation of the expectations. Do you have a sense of whether there, how much there will be available in terms of the need is, so I guess what I'm saying is in Nebraska our expectation is they're gonna get a lot of money, but it is not gonna be able to cover everyone. Do you have a sense that just about everyone will be able to be covered in Texas?

John Speirs (14:50):
In Texas, the, the the need is greater than the funds that will be available. This is well then

Christopher Mitchell (14:57):
It's good that you have all of the growing economic activity of the entire United States in your cities. <Laugh>

John Speirs (15:03):
<Laugh>, we're fortunate here in Texas is that we have a robust economy that is one that has a, a diverse set of economic drivers that are really enabling a robust workforce with low levels of unemployment and something that we have growing populations to support that workforce. And that there is you know, really an abundance of jobs available for those that seek it. One of the, the components of this is how might we build upon the federal funding to ensure that we're able to develop a funding approach where we can leverage other funding streams from those giving campaigns of corporations or other public-private partnerships to ensure that where there may be funds that can't build out to every single underserved household, that we're able to plug in those opportunities, develop public private partnerships, and really develop those campaigns to ensure that there are multiple funding streams coming in because that need is greater than the funds available, despite the fact that we are you know, slated to receive billions with the, the funds that are available. And something that I would expect that a number of states are probably looking at those opportunities to, to build a true funding strategy to really utilize the federal funds as a catalyst to scale those opportunities for additional revenue streams, however that may be.

Christopher Mitchell (16:55):
Yeah, I think that's really what we like to hear is this idea not just that, oh, we're gonna do what we can with the federal dollars, but saying we're gonna try to solve this problem. The, we have an opportunity here where people are paying attention with the federal money coming in, but we need to identify local sources to make sure that we're able to cover all the need. And, and this gets back to one of those areas that I feel like our organization, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance kind of straddles where I think sometimes people in urban areas are a bit resentful of how much it might cost to connect a home in rural areas. And people in rural areas are telling their legislators to stop putting money into the cities. But the economic activity that drives the state is often centered in those major cities.

And so, you know, our, our hope is generally saying, you know what? We think we need to connect everyone. That's what's gonna do the job. And frankly what we're concerned with is generally the cost of, of leaving people unconnected is gonna be really great, right? I mean, like the, the missed educational opportunities, the missed telehealth opportunities, all that other stuff that's just gonna like increase our budgets and other ways down the line. And so what I'm hearing from you is that we're gonna, you're gonna address that in Texas by trying to make sure that you're able to generate enough funds from philanthropic as well as potentially state sources or local sources to get everyone covered and cover that shortfall of feds may leave.

John Speirs (18:23):
It is objective within Harris County to, to do that. And through this collaboration that is not only going on within our region, but one that through our Texas Digital Equity Network and through a coalition of cities and counties that are working on broadband issues, that there is a, a shared understanding of that need and that opportunity. And this is something that even if the state can't deliver, that we are doing all that we can with the resources that we have to do that for our local communities and hopefully being able to make a significant impact that creates that opportunity.

Christopher Mitchell (19:03):
That's wonderful.

DeAnne Cuellar (19:04):
I'd like to point out a fact for people that, you know, don't get to hear a lot about Texas with our, with our content, but there are 895 separate cities, 361 unincorporated areas, and the state has more than 30 million residents. And I, I, I like to, to give people comparison, and it's like three times the size of the country of Italy, if people have ever traveled, you know, to, to Europe. This is a big state. So the problems are big, but, and I know it's, it's difficult to understand how we mobilize for advocacy in a, in a state like ours. But what we, we do know about doing this work for the last decade or so is that when we are able to come up with these sorts of bipartisans and solutions, we see these models replicated in other areas of the country later on.

Christopher Mitchell (19:47):
And I'll just note that symbol for Texas is also the boot <laugh>. Y'all don't know DM muted herself, but she's laughing hilariously right now. She she can't stop laughing. <Laugh>, go ahead John.

John Speirs (19:59):
Yep. No, and the, the lone star state of course. But you know, this is something that one, one statement that we are that is often said with the cities and counties collaborative is really the, the win for Texas. And this is something that where there's a, a shared understanding of the importance to really put a collective win above just individual wins. And it, it is really amazing to see the collaborations that have developed not only in Harris County, but within the Alamo region, which is Bexar County in San Antonio and in central Texas with Travis County doing a great job to, to bring together the, the local jurisdictions. And a regional effort in the panhandle called Connected Panhandle with the city of Amarillo, really bringing those local jurisdictions together. And the, the work that's being done in the, the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex with Fort Worth and city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County come together, and the city of Dallas and Dallas County coming together. I mean, these are massive regions with significant populations, and this is an opportunity that we can put down our individual priorities and the priorities that we are prioritizing are the, the collective win. And so this is something that is just a few of the examples. There are others including deep East Texas council governments that are coming together around the work there, and is something that really is great to see how much activity there is going on in our state.

DeAnne Cuellar (21:51):
I, I mean, I would pivot back to what, what John talked about a, a little bit earlier is that there's this organic division that happens in all of our states when we start defining unserved and underserved and rural and urban. And we don't even talk a whole lot about the in between markets. And so with Texas having all of the geographies and all of the types of climate, that's why it, it is again, like a testing bed for this type of bipartisan support needed to mobilize on such a huge issue. And I don't know if John wants to, you know, share a few more, some of those examples. He gave a really good long list, but at the end of the day, it's, it's, it's like moving away from some of those some of those divisive terms that are used to describe the work in my personal opinion.

John Speirs (22:38):
I agree, Dean, like one of the examples is actually close to home and I can officially speak to this the city of Houston and Harris County. We have the third most populous county in the nation with Harris County and City of Houston is the fourth most populous city. And when you look at the, the size and extent of those entities, both with close to 20,000 employees each this week we had reached a major milestone accomplishment with the Harris County Commissioner's Court passing a memorandum of understanding between the entities. And this memorandum of understanding is to ensure that we are working together to coordinate our broadband infrastructure and to enable the opportunities to achieve digital equity for all and to ensure that we're developing those programs and those supports within our community to be able to implement that.

There is a lot of work that we need to do and there is a tremendous opportunity there. And we are very excited for that memorandum of understanding to also lead to greater future opportunities that we don't even know what those look like yet. And this is something that letting that process play out and the the work just do what it needs to do to, to create that is something that is going to be exciting to see over the next few years in this infrastructure decade. And something that we hope that that memorandum understanding is an inspiration for others to also sign on. And something that really creates that important fabric for local jurisdictions to demonstrate their commitment to this coordination and to these shared principles. Because at the end of the day, it's local governments that really drive that innovation that lead to a, a more improved quality of life for our residents and lead the way to greater opportunities that can scale to other statewide efforts.

Christopher Mitchell (24:53):
Is this surprising to you if if I went back in time three years ago and said that you'd be at this point with those agreements, would you have said, yeah, I could see that happening? Or is this a little out of the ordinary?

John Speirs (25:03):
The memorandum of understanding between Harris County and the City of Houston is a significant step while the entities coordinate on other matters including just manage managed transportation infrastructure and public safety wireless radio networks. This is something that is a demonstration that we are talking about broadband, which is still relatively new in the, the greater lexicon to many. And something that is a, a commitment to really not only implement broadband solutions, but continue to commit to explore and innovate with those solutions through this work. And so that commitment to to sharing this innovation is really exciting because we know the capabilities that can come from broadband infrastructure and this commitment to innovate together I is really exciting because if it was three years ago, I would say no.

Christopher Mitchell (26:09):
Hmm. Excellent. Well, I think we need to wrap up there. Dean, did you have any last thoughts or comments?

DeAnne Cuellar (26:15):
Yeah, I just had like one quick question to see if, if John would a agreed or disagree with me about this. Cuz I'm, we're thinking about this. One of the top line messages that came out during the pandemic and it's ongoing with pandemic recovery for, you know, to give you is be county and San Antonio or Houston Harris County as an example. One of the, one of the things that helped us push through and work through our collaboration is that if you, even if you are in an urban area and rural communities think that you're getting an abundance of resources, you can also say that the reason why you would want to collaborate with the communities outside of an urban area is because of because of the movement of the constituents back and forth between urban and rural communities that had to take place.

So a lot of people from outside of San Antonio had to come to San Antonio for connectivity and skills and devices, and it's pretty, I'm pretty sure that that happened across the state. And so if there was one way I would suggest that people would like to talk about this outside of Texas, they might could just like, you know, throw a big net and see if that is if that is a, a, a stoplight message that they could use to open up that same conversation. So, John, that, that was long-winded, but do you think that that's kind of what happened, that they were like, look, we're, our resources are already going back and forth anyway, we might as well collaborate on the solutions?

John Speirs (27:32):
Absolutely. What we saw with the pandemic was a shift in how we work, in how we live, in how we conduct our business. And this opportunity enables the workforce to truly work remotely or to connect in different ways from a workplace where they may be connecting with a coworker that is working remotely. And so it has really shifted the workforce and our economy to operate in a way that we've never seen before. And this is something that the more that local governments come together around this and, and share in the understanding that this is where we come together to support the core economic drivers that are enabled by broadband the better off we are in the long term. Excellent. Well thank you so much for your time today, John. Thank you so much.

Ry Marcattilio (28:29):
We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muni Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at communitynets follow muni stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from I lsr, including Building Local Power Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Hughes B for the song, warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.