OPINION

Barro, Acuna: From Odessa to Odesa, there's a model for Texas broadband

JORGE BARRO AND LUIS ACUNA

Roughly 2.5 million Texans still do not have access to the internet in their homes and are cut off from vital connections to work, learning and health care. Even more lack high-speed internet; the number grows to nearly 7.4 million.

As state leaders search for innovative ways to bring these families online, they should look to a couple of unexpected places for inspiration: Odessa in the west and Odesa in the east.

In both the West Texas oil town and the war-torn Ukrainian port, local residents — for very different reasons — are connecting to the internet through a network of low-Earth orbit satellites that beam broadband signals into areas where residents are cut off from land-based connections.

The Odessa and Odesa models could offer an opportunity to close the state’s digital divide, particularly in mostly deep rural areas.

A report we recently wrote for Texas 2036 and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy detailed that regions without broadband don’t draw as many businesses or new jobs. Families can’t access telehealth services and students have harder times completing homework, logging into class remotely or enrolling in online education.

High-speed internet, also referred to as broadband, is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second.

As of 2019, nearly 10% of the state — 852,000 households — still didn’t have any internet access at home, while in 2020 an estimated 2.8 million Texas households didn’t have broadband.

The various types of technology used to deliver broadband service and their availability to reach an area depends on factors such as cost, terrain and population density. With Texas covering 269,000-square miles, achieving broadband ubiquity will take an all-in approach, from fiber to fixed wireless and everything in between.

One option that could help provide service to Texans in certain parts of the state is the addition of low-Earth orbit satellites.

These 500-pound devices send signals to homes much faster than larger satellites at higher orbits. And with a network in place, providers could increase their coverage.

SpaceX, the company founded by one of our newest Texans: Elon Musk, has launched more than 2,000 of what could be 40,000 satellites into orbit about 200 miles above the earth. Other companies launching similar ventures include Telesat, OneWeb and Amazon.

Musk’s low-Earth orbit satellites are already making an impact in Texas. Last year, the Ector County ISD and the Permian Strategic Partnership teamed up with SpaceX to provide free internet service to 90 families in a community south of Odessa that didn’t have high-speed internet. And this winter, when Russia invaded Ukraine, SpaceX activated service in that country.

Ultimately, these satellites could deliver affordable internet to millions of unserved Texans, and Texas leaders could help.

Last year, the American Rescue Plan Act approved by Congress included about $500 million for Texas to improve broadband infrastructure. Those funds could cover the startup fees for more than 800,000 Texas households, or nearly all of the households lacking home internet.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who oversees the new Broadband Development Office, just finished a 12-stop listening tour to develop the state’s first-ever broadband plan. As he does so, he should explore subsidizing low-Earth orbit satellite service for deep rural areas, along with improving land-based technology like fiber throughout the state.

As we consider the future of broadband expansion, Odessa and Odesa could help provide part of a solution for millions of Texans by “launching us into orbit” in closing the digital divide.

Jorge Barro is a public finance fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, and Luis Acuña is a senior policy adviser at Texas 2036.