Some census blocks—U.S. Census Bureau-designated geographies at the neighborhood level—in the Tomball, Magnolia, Pinehurst and Hockley areas have access to three or four wired internet service providers. Meanwhile, others are limited to one provider and its pricing options or no internet providers at all. This is according to data from BroadbandNow, an organization that compiles data from the Federal Communications Commission and internet service providers.
“Internet is just part of life now, and that’s why having a place like the library to access computers and internet for free is so essential to our function,” said Janna Hoglund, director of the Lone Star College-Tomball Community Library. “Without access to the internet, you can’t access anything—job searching, online education, paying bills online, nothing.”
The Tomball area leads the four communities in terms of connectivity, ranked as the 54th most connected community in Texas—as of October—ahead of Hockley at 127th, the Magnolia area at 190th and Pinehurst at 617th, according to BroadbandNow. A total of 962 communities across the state were ranked.
This metric is based on FCC data and updated every six months, BroadbandNow Editor-in-Chief Tyler Cooper said. The ranking examines the density of internet providers. Communities with more providers available to a greater number of street addresses rank higher, he said.
“A lot of people, especially in urban areas, imagine the internet as just being everywhere,” Cooper said. “Broadband [internet] has sneakily become almost a prerequisite for participation in modern society ... creating a digital divide between those who have internet access and those who don’t.”
Fewer internet providers means lower competition and higher prices, Cooper said, a problem which further contributes to the digital divide.
Internet providers—such as AT&T, Charter Communications and Comcast available locally—are required by the FCC to disclose information about broadband internet access services twice per year through self-reporting.
However, Cooper said self-reporting can result in skewed data indicating that some census blocks have access to high-speed internet, even though only a portion of the block may have access. This is an issue across the nation, he said, but particularly for less urban communities.
“If providers list that they have service at even one address within a census block, the FCC counts that entire census block as covered,” Cooper said.
Cooper said this skewed data translates into an underdiscussed topic of internet affordability.
“On paper, [these areas] look like they have a decent number of providers, but they tend to be lower competition areas, which makes prices higher,” Cooper said.
Communities with three or more internet providers see 30% lower internet prices on average than those with two wired providers available, Cooper said—an issue recognized by Kristy Allen, a resident of the Inverness Estates neighborhood in Tomball.
According to BroadbandNow data, Inverness Estates is serviced by AT&T fiber and broadband internet, Comcast and EarthLink.
Allen said she has been a Comcast customer for the past two years, using AT&T in the two years prior. She said she tries to switch between the two companies every two years to save money.
“Comcast has drastically increased their rate. I’m looking to just get a great internet service for under $50 a month,” Allen said in an email.
Shirley Jensen, executive director of Magnolia-based nonprofit Society of Samaritans, said the few SOS clients who can afford internet typically cannot afford to pay the bill consistently and may have to choose between internet and paying another bill, such as car insurance.
“It’s a real detriment because they just don’t have the resources at their fingertips like [those with internet access],” she said.
Having home internet access is essential for class participation at both Tomball and Magnolia ISDs, district officials said.
In both districts, teachers use online resources and technology for both classwork and homework assignments.
“Internet access is an important part of education: You learn how to research, collaborate and communicate,” said Anita Hebert, MISD assistant superintendent of curriculum. “We feel those skills are essential for [students] moving into both the college world and the workforce because almost every job requires some interaction with digital tools or internet.”
Dianne Tidwell, TISD’s director of digital learning, and Hebert said there are a small number of students at both districts who either do not have access to adequate internet at home or do not have a device at home to complete assignments. As such, teachers are required to have alternative methods—such as offering hard copies of assignments—and students are allowed to use the school computers or Wi-Fi •before or after school.
Locally, the few places with free public access to both computers and internet service include the LSC-Tomball Community Library in Tomball and the Malcolm Purvis Library in Magnolia.
A branch of the Harris County Public Library System, the Tomball library is also a part of LSC-Tomball. Hoglund said some college students may not be able to afford internet at home, which is where the library comes into play.
“If a college student doesn’t have internet, where do they go to do homework? Their campus library. College students and others rely on our services,” Hoglund said.
From Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2019, the Magnolia library saw 2,057 Wi-Fi sessions and 6,791 sessions on its nine computers, Branch Manager Elaine Taylor said. The Tomball library saw 39,200 sessions on its 67 computers in fiscal year 2018-19, which runs from March to February. The library saw 19,464 computer sessions just six months into FY 2019-20, library data shows.
Some of the primary reasons people come to the library for computer• or internet use include online education, job search and applications, and applying for natural disaster assistance, Hoglund said.
“Libraries play the role of reducing the digital divide between the people who cannot afford internet access or computer access at home and those who can,” Hoglund said.
Expanding internet access
In addition to educational efforts to reduce the digital divide, state legislators passed Senate Bill 14 on June 7—effective immediately—which allows Texas electric cooperatives to deploy broadband internet by using existing electricity easements in rural Texas, the bill reads.
Electric cooperatives are private, nonprofit companies that deliver electricity to customers in rural areas, according to Texas Electric Cooperatives, an organization that represents 75 electric cooperatives in the state. While there are not any electric cooperatives in the Tomball area, a portion of the Magnolia community west of Indigo Lake is serviced by the San Bernard Electric Co-op.•In growing areas—such as Tomball and Magnolia—additional infrastructure is necessary for residents to have adequate internet access, said Michael Bybee, director of external communications for Comcast.
From 2012-17, the four Tomball and Magnolia ZIP codes each saw their populations increase between 10% and 26% within those five years, according to census data.
Comcast covers between 50% and 81% of the Tomball, Magnolia and Pinehurst ZIP codes but only 11.6% of Hockley ZIP code 77447, according to BroadbandNow data. Bybee said Comcast is planning to increase its• coverage in each of these areas, although he could not provide specific details.
“We see the growth potential for other parts of [the Greater Houston area] like Magnolia and Tomball, and we absolutely want to be there and be a part of that growth,” he said.
Additionally, Bybee said Comcast offers a program for low-income customers called Internet Essentials. The program provides discounted internet to those who are eligible for public assistance programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, Medicaid and other programs.
Bybee said about 400,000 customers in the Greater Houston area use this program, which includes the Greater Tomball and Magnolia areas; however, specific numbers for these communities could not be provided.
Other providers, such as AT&T and Spectrum, offer similar programs.
While the Greater Tomball and Magnolia areas are not without access to internet access, Cooper said he believes internet service must increase as the population rises.
“I wouldn’t say [the Tomball-Magnolia area] is in bad shape ... but there’s definitely room for improvement,” he said. “As those areas continue to see growth, internet service providers and municipalities are going to have to have a plan in place for making internet access available.”
Affordable internet options
Several internet providers, including some providers in the Greater Tomball and Magnolia areas, offer low-income internet programs with certain eligibility criteria for qualified customers.*
Access from AT&T
Low-cost internet service; available in five speed tiers; customers must qualify for the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Internet Essentials from Comcast
Low-cost Wi-Fi; customers must meet eligibility criteria, such as qualifying for the National School Lunch Program, Medicaid and other programs
Spectrum Internet Assist
Low-cost internet service; customers must be a recipient of the NSLP, Community Eligibility Provision of the NSLP, or Supplemental Security Income
*Other criteria, including debt with the internet service provider, may also have to be met.