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Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

Houston to get 5G service

Nice.

Verizon will soon launch 5G technology in Houston, though its initial focus won’t be on improving the performance of mobile devices.

Rather, the wireless provider is positioning itself to compete with Comcast and AT&T for streaming television, playing video games or telling Alexa to turn on the lights.

Verizon officials said Tuesday that they will introduce residential 5G broadband starting in the second half of this year, using radio signals, rather than copper or fiber cables, to provide internet and phone services to the home. Houston is the third city announced as part of a four-market plan that also includes Sacramento and Los Angeles, Calif.

“It really comes down to not wanting to be left out of the loop, and 5G is what allows them to not get cut off,” Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag said.

People spend much of their days on their smartphones, but once they get home they connect to Wi-Fi rather than use their data plan. The new 5G technology provides a cheaper opportunity for wireless providers to enter that broadband market.

Theoretically, 5G will be able to achieve speeds of tens of gigabits per second, though most companies talk initially about 1 Gbps to 2 Gbps speeds. While variables from weather to terrain to buildings can affect 5G performance, the new technology is still expected to be much faster than current cell service — LTE speeds are typically in the 10-to-150 megabits per second range — and could potentially outstrip even the fastest home broadband currently available.

Dwight Silverman goes into more detail about what this means for end users, the tl;dr version of which is more options for home broadband beyond AT&T and Comcast. Potentially, anyway, and starting sometime in 2019, as this is all still more or less vaporware. But it’s coming, it’s better than what we’ve got now, and it should give you more choices in the marketplace.

Mobile broadband in Texas

For your perusal.

Almost half of adult Texans, about 8.9 million, use mobile broadband devices — cellphones, laptops or tablets using a cellular network — to keep the Internet a constant companion, according to a survey by Connected Nation, a nonprofit that is working to map and improve broadband use in several states.

According to the survey, 11 percent of adult Texans don’t even bother with home-based broadband, relying only on mobile devices on cellular networks. And that percentage is higher among minorities and low-income people, both about 17 percent, according to the survey.

“Smartphones are revolutionizing the way Texans communicate and function in our modern world,” said Don Shirley, executive director of Connected Texas, a division of Connected Nation.

[…]

Connected Nation reports that Texas and Florida led the eight other states in its survey: 48 percent in those two states use mobile broadband compared with an average of 42 percent in all 10 states.

Shirley said Texas’ expanse is a factor in the embrace of mobile technology here.

“More people have access to cellular networks than cable,” he said.

You can see the full survey here. Texas is below the national average in broadband adoption, but as noted above it for mobile broadband. I would have liked to have seen data from some other high-population states like California, New York, and Illinois, but no such luck. Still, some interesting tidbits in there if you’re into that sort of thing.

More on the broadband map of Texas

Shouldn’t a map that purports to document broadband availability in Texas do a better job than this of actually including broadband providers?

At an unveiling last month, the Texas Department of Agriculture touted its map of broadband Internet availability as the first step in closing a “digital divide” that denies rural Texans critical services.

But a political divide has opened instead, as critics question the tool’s accuracy and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples’ relationship with the organization that created it.

Staples’ Democratic rival, Hank Gilbert, and a handful of local providers, consumer groups and mapping organizations say the agency tailored the application to fit Connected Nation, the nonprofit selected by the department and the Texas Public Utility Commission to create the map. The Agriculture Department and the company defend the process, while their critics contend that the map will direct federal stimulus money toward major telecommunications companies at the expense of smaller Internet providers.

“They hit the big guys,” said James Breeden, founder of LiveAir Networks, which covers rural parts of Central Texas. “I didn’t even know they were putting together a broadband map until I saw it on the news and went ‘Oh.’ Then I logged in and went, ‘Oh, really!’ ”

He said he couldn’t find his company or two nearby providers on the map. Some areas didn’t show the correct distributor. Others named one when none existed. “The map is just off. It’s not technically accurate,” he said.

Perhaps if the Department of Agriculture had hired a local non-profit to do this work instead of sending the stimulus dollars that paid for it out of state, the results might have been better. There’s a lot of other questions about the process that led to this map as well as the map itself, which the article does a good job of highlighting. I’m sure there’s more there as well, if someone has the time to dig in. Check it out and see what you think.

Was there no one in Texas that could tell us about our broadband situation?

I’m a little late in picking this up, so bear with me. Last week, the Texas Department of Agriculture published a map detailing where broadband access exists and doesn’t exist in Texas. Democratic candidate for Ag Commish Hank Gilbert, after criticizing the map as being much ado about not very much, then had some strong words about how the study that led to the map’s creation was funded.

“It was inappropriate for the Texas Department of Agriculture to outsource more than $3 million in federal funding to a Kentucky non-profit organization with a questionable record and significant ties to telecommunications companies when federal law allowed the state to conduct this project on its own,” Gilbert said.

He accused [Ag Commissioner Todd] Staples and the Texas Department of Agriculture of bypassing state agencies and public universities within Texas that could have completed the project.

“The fact of the matter is that federal law allowed the state or any of the public universities in Texas to conduct this project,” Gilbert said, citing the provisions The Broadband Data Improvement Act, 47 U.S.C. §1304, which states that multiple entity types-including government bodies-were eligible for the funds.

Gilbert also questioned why Staples would allow the Texas Department of Agriculture to do business with a company that has left controversy in its wake in North Carolina and Kentucky, signed restrictive non-disclosure agreements with telecom companies prohibiting disclosure of detailed coverage information, and has been accused of providing misleading information to the Federal Communications Commission.

Staples’ response to Gilbert’s charges came from his campaign. As yet, as far as I know, there has been no comment from the TDA itself about the substance of Gilbert’s remarks. (For that matter, neither has the Staples campaign.) Politics aside, that’s a pretty straightforward question: Why not fund the study through a Texas university? Surely any number of them could have done it, quite possibly for less than $3 million. This was paid for with stimulus money, so regardless of the actual price tag, it would have been nice to keep it here. It would be nice if the TDA could tell us why it chose not to do that.

West U and Bellaire on the Google Fiber bandwagon

The deadline for submitting an application for a city to be a part of Google’s experimental fiber network was last Friday, the 26th. The cities of West University Place and Bellaire got theirs in before the deadline.

Cindy Siegel and Bob Kelly won’t be making any photo-op leaps to promote their respective cities’ cases for bring Google’s fiber to Bellaire or West University Place. Both cities are taking low-key approaches to their responses to Google’s bid requests, and both municipalities have something few other cities can boast; high-density entities with relatively low square mileage, with great proximity to one of the most tech-savvy large cities in the country.

Can Bellaire and West U compete against the others?

“We’re taking a more straightforward, practical approach,” said Bellaire City Manager Bernie Satterwhite. “If you look at what some of the other cities are doing, and look at some of the institutions that would benefit from this, I would think it might diminish our chances somewhat.”

In the same breath, though, Satterwhite told the Examiner: “But, it’s worth our while to pursue this.”

West University Place City Manager Michael Ross, however, thinks his city’s conservative, under-the-radar set of sales pitches to Google, will play to an advantage for his municipality.

“I feel our chances are extremely high,” said Ross. “It’s been proven time and time again that West University Place is a community that is very desirable for technology. We do everything we can with our current provider—what we’d really like is what, in this case, is a ‘supreme’ provider.”

They join Sugar Land in submitting an application, and we know all about Austin. Does anyone know if the city of Houston ever did anything about this? My guess would be No, since I’ve not seen any indication of it. But in the event I just missed it, leave a comment if you know what happened.

Sugar Land wants Google Fiber for Communities

Sugar Land joins Austin in making a concerted pitch to bring Google Fiber For Communities to their town.

“This project is suited to Sugar Land. Our population is highly educated. We have high standards,” said Sharlett Chowning, director of information technology in her presentation to City Council on Tuesday.

The proposed Internet speeds would be “like downloading a full-length 3D high-definition video in five minutes,” Chowning said.

Interested communities must submit an application by March 26, and the city’s department of information technology is working on Sugar Land’s submission.

Here’s the official city of Sugar Land web page on their effort, complete with logo, slogan, action items for individuals who want to get involved, and social media links. Are we gonna get in the game, Houston, or are we just going to sit back and let these other cities take the initiative?

Do we want Google Fiber For Communities in Houston?

Perhaps you’ve heard about Google’s latest project.

We’re planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We’ll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Dwight Silverman wondered what Houston might do about this.

I e-mailed Richard Lewis, the city’s chief technical officer, and asked him if Houston was indeed an “interested in community”. I heard back from Janis Evans, director of communications for Mayor Annise Parker. She said:

This looks interesting. However, the city would need some time to take a harder look at it, which we are doing.

Houston was aggressive when it came to plans in the mid-2000s to set up a citywide Wi-Fi network – a project that imploded when the chosen vendor, EarthLink, decided to get out of the business. All that’s left of the endeavor now are some downtown Wi-Fi hotspots.

If the city wants to work with Google, they can click the button on this page to apply. And, if you’re a resident or group interested in nominating your community, there’s a button for that on the page, too.

How about it, Houston? Are you an “interested community”?

If we are, we’re going to need to step it up. The city of Austin has already taken official action – they’ve submitted an application, asked for public support, and have their City Council involved. In addition, there’s a grassroots campaign going on as well.

If Austin is going to convince Google to build here, it’s going to take a strong community response. In fact, there is a whole section of questions for the City to document the community response to the initiative.

The “Big Gig Austin” initiative has been created by a number of supporters, who want to work in support of the Google RFI. We’ve got about one month to document how incredibly badly Austin wants this network to be built here.

The official rollout of the project will be happening in the next few days. In the meantime, we’ve created a couple of resources.

24-Hour Twitter Campaign

If, in the next 24 hours, if we can get 200 people to follow @BigGigAustin, I’ll ask the City to put us in a press release. I know there have been discussions about sending out a press release about the Google fiber project. If we can get that kind of following so quickly, I’ll ask the City to cite us in their press release as an example of how Austin is rallying behind this project.

That was posted Wednesday at noon. As of now, there are 199 followers of @BigGigAustin, so they didn’t quite make their goal by the stated deadline, but that’s still a pretty good showing.

So that’s what Austin is doing, and if we want Houston to be a part of this, that’s an example of what we’re up against. What do you say, folks?

Comcast to offer wireless broadband in Houston

Dwight has the news.

Coming next year to the hot, humid air all around you, Houston: High-speed wireless broadband from Comcast.

Its new High-Speed 2go service is rolling out now in Portland, Ore., and local Comcast spokesman Michael Bybee said today Houston will get it in 2010. He didn’t offer any other specifics.

Some more details can be found here. The main bits of interest to me for this service are these:

Comcast will offer its own wireless laptop cards and the service will not have any voice component. The card is free with a 1 year contract or it can be purchased for $99 and customers can go month to month.

[…]

Consumers can pay $69.99 a month for a “fast pack” national offering that buys them unlimited wireless data and a 12 Mbps home broadband offering. A metro-only service will cost $49.99 a month.

It’s not municipal WiFi, but it sounds interesting. As an existing Comcast customer, I’ll be most interested in what their pricing will be to bundle home broadband service with this. It would be nice to be able to take the laptop with me and not have to worry about finding a hotspot. Anyone else interested in this?