How Houston (and Texas) Can Improve Broadband Competition

Last week, I published an article outlining what the City of Houston can do to promote broadband competition. I was responding to a group of citizens who came to Houston’s city council public comment session and asked our elected officials to do something about net neutrality.

While the City of Houston can’t do much about federal regulations, and they can’t create a municipal network because of state regulations, there are opportunities to get creative in the margins.

I started with the premise that broadband competition benefits consumers. We don’t really have residential broadband competition in Houston right now, and the City of Houston could do more to encourage competitors — especially for low income and underserved neighborhoods.

There are four ideas that the City of Houston can implement right away:

  • Collect data about broadband availability.
  • Encourage citizen-led solutions, such as community mesh networks like NYCMesh.
  • Improve transparency about master license agreements – who has them, how much do they pay, and where does the money go?
  • Make broadband accessibility part of the City of Houston’s legislative agenda.

These recommendations should be relevant for any city in Texas. You can read the editorial for more details.

64% of Houston has two or fewer providers.

There are some great national maps of broadband accessibility, but they only get down to the census tract level (2,500 – 8,000 people). I wanted to see it at the census block group level (600 – 2,500 people), which is the smallest geographic unit published by the FCC in their data.

Right away, we can see that almost two-thirds of Houston has two or fewer residential broadband providers. In some rare cases, there is only one provider.

This might change with the advancement of SB1004. Lawmakers say that it will now be easier to deploy faster, 5G networks throughout the public right of way. These new networks will lead to new ways of thinking about internet access at home, at school, and on the go.

However, telecom companies have a dubious history of failing to deliver on promised upgrades. With good data in hand, the City of Houston should be able to hold these companies accountable as these new networks roll out.

There’s already great research about broadband at the local level.

Back in September 2017, the Brookings Institute put out an excellent study of broadband availability and affordability, mapping a ton of great data by census tract. Their recommendations for local stakeholders include:

  • Making the most out of franchise and licensing agreements
  • Collecting data to inform local policies
  • Orchestrate collaborations to improve digital literacy
  • Develop public outreach campaigns
  • Work regionally, not locally

This report is a must-read for digital literacy advocates.

I echo some of these recommendations in my article, but the Brookings Institute report contains many more actionable tasks that can improve digital literacy. With Census 2020 right around the corner, our collective digital literacy skills will be put to the test, since the new census will rely on public responses submitted online.

The FCC should publish up to date information.

The FCC’s source data has some problems. To start, it’s a 10.5GB flat file with over 68 million rows. So anyone wanting to work with the source data would either need some power-user tools, or work within the FCC’s web filters. There’s no chance that Excel is going to open this one.

FCC should update broadband survey data

And even though the data was last refreshed in November 2017, it actually hasn’t been updated since December 2016. There doesn’t seem to be a schedule for updating this data in the future, either.

Want to be an advocate? Here are three tips for speaking at public session.

If you feel newly empowered with information and you want to encourage our elected officials to make broadband competition a priority, here are a few tips for speaking at a public session:

  • Plan and practice. Remember to introduce yourself and summarize your point briefly. You only get a couple of minutes, and they go by really quickly. It helps if you practice so when you’re live, you won’t feel rushed.
  • Bring handouts. You’ll provide council members with visuals, a place to take notes, and it shows that you’ve done your homework. Making a handout for broadband competition is easy – simply zoom to your neighborhood on a map and print it out. I chose these colors so they would work in a black and white printout.
  • Have an “ask.” What do you want the mayor and city council to do?

It’s not easy to make sure that every Houston neighborhood has affordable broadband options. Our elected officials could benefit from your feedback. Learn more about public comment sessions here.

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors, and serves on the board of two Houston nonprofits. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.