A former infantryman in the Army, Greg Conte is used to volunteering for tasks that others may shy away from. In an interview with Telecompetitor, Texas’ Broadband Development Office (BDO) Director explains why $3.3 billion in BEAD funding might not be as appealing as it sounds.
“Receiving $3.3 billion is great, but with that comes a lot of responsibility, explains Conte. “There’s a lot of attention on Texas as we have a significant amount of unserved and under-served homes, businesses, community anchor institutions. So, while there’s pressure from our citizens, we’re also under a significant amount of pressure from the NTIA to get the planning out the door so we can start getting money on the streets.”
In a state with 254 counties and over 1200 municipalities, Conte points to the fact that they’ve even hired a dedicated outreach coordinator to make sure they remain stakeholder- and community-driven. “Receiving the input, we need is a momentous task in itself, but it’s critical we seek and receive feedback from the folks we’re trying to connect.”
The BDO currently has 13 of its 23 full time employee positions filled. Conte explains that the broadband office is finding that hiring people challenging, especially if you insist that candidates come to the table with experience in the niche world of broadband. As such, the team is relying on hiring smart, adaptable professionals who have the capacity to learn broadband.
“There’s a massive amount of work that needs to get done,” says Conte. “But we can’t take shortcuts. Part of the reason past Federal broadband funding programs haven’t worked is there was a rush to get money out. We really are focused on making sure we meet NTIA standards and address the needs of Texas, to make sure our most vulnerable populations will receive access to reliable, affordable broadband. We’re committed to getting this right and we recognize that this includes jumping through hoops and checking the right boxes.”
With all the boxes checked, the timeline for funded projects to begin construction is not very different from other States that Telecompetitor has interviewed. To complicate matters slightly, Texas must follow a state statute which require a state application challenge component, not specific to BEAD but one that requires all applications for funding be made public online and for the office to review and adjudicate challenges received. The process includes a 30-day comment process followed by time for applicants to remedy upheld challenges.
With that, Conte and his team are working hard to ensure processes are streamlined, applicant evaluations are expedited, and funding is ready for shovels to go into the ground in early- to mid-2025.
There’s a lot to accomplish as one out of every four Texans is on the wrong side of the digital divide. Raw numbers equate to 1.1 million eligible households/locations for BEAD funding in Texas. Other federal data indicates that 2.8 million households, or approximately 7 million Texans, remain unconnected.
That’s a lot of Texans, which creates visible discomfort for Conte as he respects the fact that the BEAD program is intended to be a “fiber first” program. He understands the challenges of fiber first articulated by his boss, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar, who estimates that to reach everyone needed in Texas with fiber is more like a $10 billion task.
While $3.3 billion isn’t anything to scoff at, Conte also points out that the allocation, while being the highest dollar figure, is still only the 40th highest allocation when looking at territories/states per capita.
Texas, for its part, is adding significant funding to enhance the BEAD program. In November, Texas voters approved creating a $1.5 billion broadband infrastructure fund, that can be put toward matching grants for BEAD projects as well as other broadband-related initiatives in the state.
This, plus $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act/CPF broadband funding brings the broadband investment total in Texas to well in excess of $5 billion. In Spring 2023, the BDO received requests for the initial $120 million in announced funding.
“It’s important that all Texans have access to affordable internet, so fixed wireless will probably be needed to help to connect people,” explains Conte. “We are following the program, we understand the guidelines, but at the same time we are committed to getting Texans connected.”
Conte and the Texas office don’t seem to be very cognizant of the ‘don’t mess with Texas’ dogma that’s probably more ingrained in those Texas born than Conte, a native of Massachusetts.
In general, Conte is an easygoing and pragmatic professional who is more soldier than rebel. One example is that under his watch, Texas developed its own broadband maps, but the office today is focused on aligning with the FCC map to allocate funding.
The broadband map challenges that the BDO submitted to the FCC in 2023, while numbering approximately 170K, were less, on average, than we’ve heard from other states. Ten percent of the challenges were accepted, creating an impact but not a windfall in BEAD funding.
“I’m really committed to completing this job and connecting Texas,” explains Conte. “We’re focused on making Texas the most connected state. Ultimately, I’m ready to make Texas a better place, work myself out of my job by successfully completing our mission… and maybe even get my weekends back!”
Additional information about Texas broadband, including links to state resources, state-specific Telecompetitor coverage and more, can be found on the Broadband Nation web page for the state.