Thousands of Dallas County residents who have no or limited internet access could see more options as local governments consider investing in high-speed internet infrastructure.
Consultants presented recommendations to the Dallas County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, where the majority of commissioners agreed a plan is needed.
“It’s long overdue. We need it,” Commissioner John Wiley Price said on Tuesday.
Dallas County is considering using federal COVID-19 relief money to build infrastructure like cell towers and installing fiber optic cable across the entire county. This comes as county officials are coordinating with the Dallas Independent School District and Dallas on ways to bridge the digital divide.
The city has a separate broadband plan underway.
“Bottom line is we want the service for families and individuals to do what they need to do,” Commissioner Theresa Daniel said.
Ninety-five percent of Dallas County has infrastructure for broadband. The county wants to facilitate the upgrade of broadband to fiber to provide higher internet speeds. But finding an internet provider willing to invest in a potentially unprofitable area has been the problem.
County Judge Clay Jenkins asked the consultants why the government should pay to build the infrastructure for high-speed internet.
“Why don’t we just wait five or six years until AT&T or somebody puts in fiber?” he asked.
“Because they haven’t, and they won’t,” Commissioner J.J. Koch responded.
Once the county pays for the infrastructure, officials believe it will help spur competition, resulting in more high-speed internet options.
The county has penciled $35 million in federal COVID-19 funds for the effort. Much of the undeveloped or sparsely developed broadband infrastructure is in southeastern Dallas County, Joanne Hovis with CTC Technology and Energy consultants told commissioners on Tuesday.
The consultants conducted a random phone survey and reported that 17% of Dallas County households earning less than $50,000 outside of the city of Dallas do not have home internet service.
The disparity in access to high-speed internet became apparent at the beginning of the pandemic, when people worked from home and children attended virtual classes.
In 2020, the Dallas Independent School District took matters into its own hands and installed 10 cell towers across its campuses. The internet signal gives access to nearly 9,000 students who can log into the Wi-Fi from their homes.
The Dallas City Council last year approved using $43 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act for its internet access plan.
The city allocated $3 million for installing Wi-Fi at some parks and recreation facilities.
The city is considering using the remaining $40 million on at least two other initiatives: building at least 100 miles of fiber-optic cable around the city, and contracting with at least one nonprofit to run a digital navigators program. The initiative is meant to provide digital literacy training and help finding low-cost options for computers and internet access.
The city previously had a pilot of the program at the end of 2020.
Dallas has also been allowing residents to borrow Wi-Fi hotspots at city public libraries. City officials said they had hotspots checked out more than 20,000 times between last October through September.
Bill Zielinski, Dallas’ chief information officer, told council members in June that the fiber ring would be connected to city buildings and routed to focus on reaching areas least served by broadband.
A city-owned fiber network could lead to more reliable Internet and lower service costs for residents and businesses, Zielinski said. The city could work with internet service providers like AT&T to allow them use the network, reducing their cost for delivering services. That could lead companies to offer low-cost or free versions of their service, he said.
The city estimated in 2021 it would cost $13.5 million to build a 100-mile fiber ring, $25 million for 180 miles, and $50 million for 360 miles. Annual costs to maintain fiber rings in those ranges would run from $1-4 million.
Fiber internet is available in fewer areas of the city than cable, DSL and fixed wireless, according to data analytics website Best Neighborhood. It’s only provided through two service providers.
AT&T offers fiber with an average download speed of 999 megabytes per second to nearly 39% of the city and Frontier to 21% of the city with a 115 Mbps average download speed.
The Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband is 25 Mbps.
AT&T, which is based in Dallas, also offers DSL for 68% of the city. Its average download speed is 64 Mbps.
Without the infrastructure, Zielenski said that offering hot spots and other band-aid solutions are the best the city can do.
But several council members expressed disappointment with the plan. They said they meant to put the $40 million aside to fund projects that would more immediately help residents.
Genesis Gavino, chief of staff to Dallas’ city manager, told The Dallas Morning News that more immediate options, like the city helping people pay for Internet subscriptions, could be more expensive for the city in the longer run.
“We want to better help facilitate (Internet service providers) being able to provide low-cost, high-speed internet for more residents,” she said. “If there’s no infrastructure there, we can pay for subscriptions but they still won’t be connected. And for the ones that are, it’s possible that the service they have won’t be high speed or reliable.
The city is soliciting proposals from groups for the digital navigators program. Gavino said the city intends to award contracts in December and start the program the following month.
The program is estimated to cost $2 million and last one year, with the option to extend to a second.
A city analysis of Census data found the majority of areas with the least internet access are south of Interstate 30.
Around 45% of residents of nearly 19,000 households in the 75216 zip code of Oak Cliff have no internet — the largest percentage of any zip code, city data from September shows.
Another four southern Dallas zip codes — 75241, 75215, 75217, 75237 — are in the high- to mid-30% range of estimated households with no Internet.
City officials in recent months have also been directing residents to apply to the Affordable Connectivity Program, which launched earlier this year through the Federal Communications Commission. Dallas County’s plans also include enrolling residents.
It offers eligible low-income families or households that received certain government benefits such as supplemental nutrition assistance or federal public housing assistance to get a $30 monthly subsidy toward their internet bill and a one-time discount up to $100 to buy a laptop, desktop computer or tablet.
In Dallas County, about 35% of eligible households are participating in the program, but there are still an estimated 210,000 eligible households unenrolled, according to the consultants’ report. The county could consider including in its contract a requirement for internet service providers to offer a $30 service plan to customers, so that low-income households can get free high-speed internet, Hovis told commissioners.
But it’s not a guarantee that eligible families who enroll get accepted.
Solomon Israel, a wireless consultant for Dallas ISD, told Dallas council members in June that the school district worked with AT&T and Spectrum and submitted applications for students to be accepted in the federal program. He said the two internet carriers rejected thousands of applications.
“They were rejected because their networks don’t extend to provide service in those areas,” Israel said.
Both the city and county emphasized that they have no interest in becoming an internet providers.
The county will decide in the coming weeks whether to pay to build the infrastructure. Commissioners have to also decide whether to own the infrastructure and lease it to internet service providers or to pay for an internet service provider to build and own the infrastructure and allow the county to lease some of the fiber cables.