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The battle for municipal broadband in Texas

On Behalf of | Jun 26, 2024 | Counsel for Texas Municipalities, Municipalities |

In Texas, municipalities face significant hurdles when it comes to developing their own broadband internet services. The state currently imposes restrictions that prevent local governments from offering broadband. While Texas holds onto these regulations, other states are starting to remove them. Just last month, Minnesota repealed its law that protected ISPs from municipal competition. The shift in regulations raises important questions about the future of municipal broadband and its impact on local communities.

The state of municipal broadband in Texas

Under Texas Utilities Code, § 54.201, municipalities may not provide telecommunications services to residents. The state originally established the law to promote competition and prevent government interference in the marketplace. However, critics argue that this has inadvertently stifled competition by protecting existing internet service providers (ISPs) from public competition.

The Texas Broadband Development Office (TBDO) was established to address the broadband needs of the state. The agency is responsible for developing a comprehensive broadband plan, managing federal and state funds dedicated to broadband expansion, and coordinating efforts to improve internet access. Despite the growing demand for reliable internet, especially in rural areas, the state’s current legal framework limits the ability of local governments to step in where private providers fall short. This regulatory environment has left many Texans, particularly those in less densely populated regions, without adequate internet access.

The case study of Harlingen

Municipal broadband offers several benefits, but it also comes with its share of challenges. Harlingen, Texas, serves as a case study in the complexities of municipal broadband efforts. The city tried to establish its own service but ultimately failed due to legal and financial obstacles. While the benefits of towns and counties establishing broadband networks are tempting, the challenges cannot be ignored. The Harlingen example shows that without changes to state laws, municipal broadband may remain out of reach for many communities.

An upcoming crossroads for broadband

The issue of municipal broadband in Texas is more than a legal battle. It is a question of how to best serve the needs of residents, especially in underserved areas. As other states move to lift restrictions, Texas may find itself at a crossroads. The outcome of this debate could have far-reaching implications for municipalities and their ability to provide essential services in the digital age. Local leaders should continue to monitor these developments closely and consider the effect on their planning efforts.

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