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By Houston Chronicle

For thousands of Texans living in the Rio Grande Valley, the so-called “Last Mile” — that stubborn final leg of a broadband internet network that reaches a residential neighborhood — can seem endless.

More than 2.8 million households across Texas don’t have high-speed internet access but the problem is particularly acute in the Valley, where only 46% of households have a broadband connection, according to the Rio Grande Valley Broadband Coalition. While the state and federal government are sitting on mountains of cash to build out high-speed networks, only a fraction has been distributed.

The federal government has stepped up with a stopgap solution: the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program created through the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2021. The program, administered by the Federal Communications Commission, offers a $30 monthly subsidy to low-income families to help pay for internet service.

Roughly 1.7 million Texans have received the subsidy. In the Valley’s four counties — Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy — more than 200,000 households benefited.

Yet despite the program’s success, it is set to run out of money by the end of May unless Congress acts. While the program is not a panacea, it is a crucial tool alongside the much more daunting work of establishing fiber cable broadband connections across the nation, an effort currently mired in the muck of government bureaucracy.

Many parts of South Texas have grown impatient waiting on government funds to fall from the sky or for private internet service providers to lay fiber cables in their neighborhoods. For some cities the Affordable Connectivity Program is more than just a monthly utility discount — it’s a crucial keystone in the larger puzzle of bringing high-speed internet to residents.

Take Pharr, by some measures one of the worst broadband deserts in the nation. The impoverished south side was such a dead zone that even cellphone service was sparse.

A bipartisan bill extending the program’s funding through December is stuck in committee. Even if it passes, Congress should also establish longer-term funding that aligns with the four- to five-year timeline for completing broadband networks across the nation.

Among those standing in the way: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He was among Republicans who wrote a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in December blasting the Biden administration’s “reckless spending spree” and questioning why taxpayer dollars are going to households that “already had broadband prior to the subsidy.”

The FCC disputed that claim, releasing a survey showing nearly half of the ACP recipients had either no connectivity or relied solely on mobile service before receiving the benefit. The proportion increases to more than two-thirds when counting inconsistent connectivity. Cruz seems to fundamentally misunderstand the needs of his own constituents.

The Affordable Connectivity Program was always intended to be a temporary salve for communities lacking quality internet access. It makes no sense to terminate this program before the work of bridging the nation’s digital divide has even begun.