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Future of Texas – Unscripted: Committees are Set, Broadband Access Takes Center Stage in Policy Discussions

Published Feb 12, 2021 by Lindsay Munoz


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In this episode of Future of Texas – Unscripted, we discuss broadband access – what was done during 2020 to make improvements and how the issue of statewide expansion is likely to play out this session. Partnership Vice President of Policy and Advocacy Lindsay Munoz leads the discussion with Public Policy Director Ben Melson. 

In this episode we cover:

  • The Partnership’s legislative delegation – who is chairing what during the 87th Legislative Session
  • Building support for a statewide broadband plan
  • Capitol momentum for legislation & the external support needed to get it over the finish line. 

 

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Membership

Gov. Abbott Lifts COVID Restrictions, Broadband and Winter Storm Legislation Moves Forward

3/5/21
Week In Review Governor Greg Abbott took executive action on COVID-19 protocols. Legislative hearings continued in response to Winter Storm Uri, and lawmakers introduced new broadband policy proposals to expand Texans' access to the Internet. Governor Abbott Lifts COVID Restrictions On Tuesday, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA-34, which stated, in brief, that effective March 10, 2021, a.) there are no COVID-19-related capacity limits for any business or other establishment; and b.) face coverings are no longer required, although individuals are strongly encouraged to wear them when social distancing is not possible. Per the Order, businesses are free to limit capacity or require face coverings if they so choose. The Executive Order allows certain mitigation steps to be taken if an area has had seven consecutive days with more than 15 percent of hospital capacity occupied by COVID-19 patients. Currently, only two regions (El Paso and Laredo) meet that standard.   In response, Partnership President and CEO, Bob Harvey issued the following statement:  “While we in the Houston area have seen considerable improvement since January in terms of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and we are pleased that the three approved vaccines are beginning to reach the most at-risk populations, we should recognize that the majority of the regional population is still at risk of contracting the virus.   We believe that our masking and social distancing behaviors are helping drive down the prevalence of the virus even as we see an increasing presence of the worrisome variants. We have been following the advice of health care professionals throughout the pandemic and believe it is simply too early for us to forgo these actions.    We at the Partnership encourage Houstonians to stay the course, continue masking and social distancing, and we encourage customer-facing businesses to continue to require masks and limit crowding. Let’s continue to be responsible, with or without state requirements.” Winter Storm Legislative hearings on Winter Storm Uri continued this week. The industry continues to provide feedback and data from the power outages and has begun to propose solutions to improve ERCOT and the state electric grid. At the request of the Legislature, recommendations from state electrical market leaders are forthcoming. While more than 50 bills relating to the winter storm have already been filed as of Thursday, we expect the primary legislative vehicle will take shape over the next week few weeks. The last day to file bills is Friday, March 12, but it is not uncommon for lawmakers to file a “shell” bill as a placeholder and introduce actual legislation during the committee process. Among those bills already filed, most address the governance of ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission. Other bills propose mandatory reserve capacity, winterization of energy facilities and statutory restrictions on the time customers are allowed to be without power during periods of rolling blackouts.    Broadband The Legislature’s effort to address the digital divide received a boost this week when Representative Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) filed House Bill 5. This bill is expected to be the primary vehicle for broadband legislation and includes the two primary objectives outlined by the Partnership and the Digital Texas Coalition – creation of a statewide broadband office and the authorization of a long-term statewide broadband plan.     Additionally, the bill requires the creation of a grant program to facilitate investment in broadband infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Partnership staff have been working to expand the grant program to include affordability and require equitable distribution of grant funds to both rural and urban areas of the state. The legislation has been referred to the House Committee on State Affairs chaired by Representative Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), who is a joint author of the legislation. We anticipate this legislation will be heard in committee in the next few weeks. Learn more about the Partnership’s Executive Priorities.
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Rice’s D2K Lab Offers Companies Free Data Science Assistance

3/3/21
Businesses and organizations in the Houston region looking to better understand their data to help make smarter decisions have a resource at Rice University.  Rice’s Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge, or D2K Lab, offers a weekly Data Science Consulting Clinic where organizations can get advice on how to collect, analyze and use their business data to plan for the future. It’s just one of the offerings of the center, which also manages its Capstone program that helps companies, researchers in the Texas Medical Center and community organizations run big data projects over the course of a semester or year.  “These programs offer our students an opportunity to work with real world data science challenges while at the same time helping our partners leverage our student talent, as well as computational and machine learning capabilities, to find the solutions they need,” said Jennifer Sanders, program administrator for the D2K Lab. “Our consulting clinic is great because it’s free, it’s open to the public and it gives organizations and companies ideas on how to start to look at this data they have in new and useful ways.”  Client organizations can schedule a virtual appointment with students and faculty in the clinic each Monday between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Students use this time to understand the challenges and objectives of the organization and then take the remainder of the week to develop a plan for the client to collect and use the data they need. Clients even get an additional free consultation with their team to help analyze the data they begin to collect. For example, a restaurant manager wanting to project his maintenance costs in the year ahead could work with clinic students to develop a statistical model analyzing previous costs and making projections to assist with the restaurant’s overall budget.  Before COVID-19, the clinic was a drop-in offering for organizations who were able to visit the Rice campus. Now that it’s gone virtual, the clinic’s reach has expanded to more organizations across the metro area, Sanders said.  The clinic has assisted more than 100 different organizations over the last two years, and more are learning about the opportunity each week.  “This work gives our students the experience of working on teams, presenting their findings—all of the things that make them a better professional,” said Shanna Jin, communications specialist with the D2K Lab. “What we’re really doing is training the next generation of real-world problem solvers.”  The information and data shared with the Lab is protected under sponsored research agreements for Capstone projects and waivers for clinic clients.  Learn more about the program and schedule an appointment at the clinic. 
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Future of Texas: Featuring Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar

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Executive Partners