Lawmaker disputes AT&T’s claims about digital divide

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EDINBURG, Texas – State Rep. Terry Canales has disputed claims by an AT&T executive that 94 percent of Texans have access to broadband.

Canales, D-Edinburg, was one of three state lawmakers to speak about the digital divide during a webinar hosted by Edinburg Chamber of Commerce. The others were state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, D-McAllen. The subject of the webinar was the upcoming legislative session.

AT&T were one of the co-sponsors of the webinar and in the Q&A section towards the end of the show, J.D. Salinas, assistant vice president for external and legislative affairs at AT&T, said:

“We as a company are concerned about the digital divide and public data has shown that 94 percent of Texans have availability for broadband throughout the state of Texas. The issue may be digital literacy or not having the right equipment. But we wanted to ask you, what is it that the legislators can do this year to work with private industry to try to help close that digital divide?”

Salinas is a former county judge for Hidalgo County.

Rep. Canales said he did not believe the 94 percent claim. He said:

“I want to add one more word from a personal perspective. I live on Monte Cristo, right here in Edinburg. I just got cable internet and so I don’t believe the numbers that AT&T is saying, or that their study is correct. There are swathes of Texas with absolutely no access and for me to live almost right in the heart of Edinburg and barely have gotten internet, is a telling sign that we have a lot of work to do.”

According a CBS Sunday Morning feature, half the nation cannot access broadband at speeds high enough to be meaningful. And, according to recent data and maps produced by Connected Nation Texas, more than 800,000 rural Texans do not have adequate broadband infrastructure.

Canales said he would like to see less regulations for communications and satellite companies in order to encourage them to provide broadband.

“Over-regulation kills so many industries across the board. We regulate everything from a hairdressers to oil and gas. The reality is giving commercial enterprises more freedom to capitalize and help the community is probably one of the best tools that we can give you (Salinas/AT&T), to take away some of the regulations that basically tie your hands,” Canales said.

“If Texas is truly a conservative state we should all work together to try to ease some of the regulations to help industries such as the communications and satellite companies to move forward a lot of faster.”

Rep. Canales said his office has a petition asking Gov. Greg Abbott to postpone or cancel the STAAR tests for this year. “The reality is that many students because of our digital divide are missing. We have not found thousands of students in the Rio Grande Valley because of COVID-19 and the pandemic. We have separated the people in poverty because of our digital divide.”

The issue of the digital divide came up a number of times during the webinar, including the impact it has on telemedicine and students trying to accomplish distance learning.

“Obviously, this pandemic has really exposed quite a few gaps that we have,” said Sen. Hinojosa, in reference to the digital divide.

“Not only in our healthcare system, such as telemedicine, where the key there is the doctors get reimbursed at the same rate as if the patient is showing up, but also broadband and in many rural areas and many parts of the state, they do not have the infrastructure or broadband to be able to help the students learn long distance learning.”

According to the Census Bureau the South Texas border region is one the least “wired” parts of the country. Three of the region’s metropolitan statistical areas, Brownsville, McAllen, and Laredo have the lowest levels of broadband access in the country, along with Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.

Hinojosa said legislators plan to make the digital divide a priority during the upcoming legislative session.

“We want to set up a statewide plan. We do not have one right now and the reason that is important is because that will draw federal funding to help the state fund the infrastructure needed to set up broadband in many of those areas that lack broadband,” Hinojosa said.

“But, that will not happen overnight. I don’t think it will help any students, quite frankly, that right now lack broadband in many areas of the state, especially the rural areas.”

Hinojosa said lawmakers will likely craft legislation that brings in federal and state funding to address the digital divide. He said local governments, cities, counties and school districts would have a key role in building the correct infrastructure, along with the private sector.

“AEP, AT&T, some of the rural electric companies already have quite a bit of infrastructure in place,” Hinojosa said. “We need to maximize and use that infrastructure to be able to expand broadband as rapidly as we can. So, yes, we have identified that as a priority. And yes, you will see a very strong push to set up a statewide plan.”

Hinojosa pointed out that Texas received “quite a bit of CARES Act funding.” He said some of those funds have allowed school districts to purchase iPads to allow students to do distance learning.

“It is pretty challenging for us. This pandemic exposed the gaps that we have, all across our system, from healthcare to broadband and other areas.”

Rep. Guerra also spoke about the digital divide.

“We have entities such as Magic Valley Cooperative. I am originally from the ranch country and I know a lot of the students out there are having difficulty with this broadband issue,” Guerra said.

“And so I think if we work cooperatively with AT&T, AEP, Magic Valley Cooperative to assist these students because, again, many of the schools have been shut down so we need to find an answer. Let’s get our act together here in Texas in that regard.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows state Rep. Terry Canales (left) and J.D. Salinas. Credit for the file photo goes to Alex Rios.


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