U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said during a stop in East Texas that expanding broadband is a serious issue in rural East Texas and that local communities should be able to use federal coronavirus dollars to make it happen.

The senior Republican U.S. senator from Texas met Tuesday with leaders from East Texas counties during a roundtable at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Louis and Peaches Owen Heart Hospital in Tyler focusing on the challenges of limited broadband in the region and Cornyn’s own proposed legislation that would allow local leaders to use unspent COVID-19 relief funds for regional projects — like expanding broadband and infrastructure.

Participants including Smith County Judge Nathanial Moran, Christus Mother Frances Hospital President Jason Proctor, Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox, representatives from councils of government in East Texas and Deep East Texas, Longview ISD Foster Middle School seventh-grade student Jordan Nash and others shared how broadband access impacts education, health care and economic development during the discussion.

Cornyn said broadband access is a serious issue for many East Texans and that the COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue to the forefront.

“I know it’s been a miserable experience over the last couple of years for everybody, harder on some people than most,” Cornyn said. “I keep thinking about the single mom that has two or three kids trying to make sure they are doing their schoolwork virtually online. That has to be hard — worried about their education, her health and her job. That’s a lot of anxiety and frustration and fear.”

Cornyn said that one of the few good things to emerge from the pandemic has been telehealth, or virtually visiting a medical professional. The technology requires a connection to the internet, which Cornyn said has been a larger challenge in the state’s rural communities — like East Texas.

He said repurposing federal coronavirus funds could help fund projects in smaller municipalities to bridge the digital divide.

“One of the things Congress has done, in addition to providing a lot of money for broadband expansion, is offer a lot of resources that are still available at the state and local level, and we want to give more flexibility to the local government and extend those funds on things like disaster relief to broadband,” Cornyn said. “This is not a mandate. This is basically eliminating guardrails enough that good judgment and the discretion of local leaders to see if they can spend up 30 percent of those unused COVID funds on infrastructure, disaster relief and broadband.”

Moran said broadband is the avenue residents use to connect with not only health care but faith and education. He said Smith County is examining ways to expand broadband within and by partnering with other counties.

“Going forward, the paradigm shift we saw in COVID-19 is certainly not going to change any time soon across Northeast Texas,” Moran said.

East Texas Council of Governments Executive Director David Cleveland said the agency is working on a project that includes residential broadband.

“We know the definition of East Texas is rural. Today we are working on a county-by-county basis with each of our 14 counties to identify the three to five most important broadband projects needed in their respective counties,” Cleveland said. “COVID-19 forced us to recognize residential broadband is really important not only for education but also for businesses and so forth.”

Nash shared his personal experience with broadband access and his thoughts about the impact lack of access has on his fellow students.

“Our great state has a long history of fantastic achievements. There is no reason we should still be behind in broadband access. This problem was all too apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when I and so many of my peers were suddenly unable to connect with our teachers or classmates because they did not have Wi-Fi access,” Nash said. “Smaller cities like Tyler and Longview are already behind larger metro areas like Austin and Dallas. Just how far behind the rest of the world are we willing to let East Texas children fall?”

Cornyn’s State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Fiscal Recovery, Infrastructure, and Disaster Relief Flexibility Act could unlock up to $225 million in unspent COVID-19 aid for 34 East Texas counties. The bill passed the Senate in October.

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