Education, Business, National Security: Why Connecting One Rural Texas Town Affects Us All
“I sometimes feel like we’re sitting ducks out here.”
by Jessica Denson, Communications Director
Photo from 8:28 Victory Trucking
Monahans, TX (February 24, 2020) – Shellie Porras owns three businesses located in Monahans, Texas — all within 2 square miles. She operates a gym, a car wash, and a trucking company, and she wouldn’t be able to run them without access to broadband (high-speed internet).
“For our trucking company [Victory 8:28 Trucking], 100 percent of our income depends on internet access,” Porras said. “Every single company we work with requires online invoicing. There is no ‘snail mail.’ Also, all of our state compliance and truck registry information must be done through the internet, and it’s also how we track each truck. Every vehicle has its own GPS monitor.”
Monitoring the trucks is important for both running her company efficiently and for the safety of her drivers and the public. It’s a similar situation at her other businesses. Porras needs broadband to do everything from processing gym memberships to monitoring security cameras. Without it, she’s lost.
“Our clients also expect to have access to listen to music or log onto social media while they’re at the gym,” she added.
Monahans Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Teresa Burnett says internet is no longer a luxury for rural areas, but rather it’s something everyone “has to have.”
"Our medical field depends on it, our education depends on it, and even our sense of security depends on it, “said Burnett. “We are the No. 1 leading area for oil and gas production in the world. With everything going on in the world, I sometimes feel like we’re sitting ducks out here. It's so frustrating because this is so important and we need to get our government to be more proactive to help us get fiber so we can stay connected to the rest of the world. It’s an issue of national security. I feel like internet is that important and that vital to our community.”
A Portrait of a Growing Rural Town
Monahans, Texas, is located in Ward County within the Permian Basin. The largest town in the area is Midland (pop. 134,610), which is about 35 miles away. The land in and around Monahans has been largely undeveloped over the last 30 years. That is now changing.
Silhouette of oil workers at an oil field pumpjack site against a dramatic sky.
In 2010, the town was listed as having a population of about 6,900 people. That’s almost doubled to more than 11,000 people—mostly because service and oil companies have begun setting up in the area.
To say the town is having “growing pains” is an understatement.
“We’ve been so poor for so long simply because we haven’t had the industry,” explained Burnett. “Now we suddenly have to build new streets and roads and a new landfill. Our airport is getting more and more traffic. We have to make sure we’re following laws and regulations for everything, and that all has a cost associated with it. We’re having to use all our resources just to keep our community functioning.”
As Monahans continues to grow, its tax dollars are going toward those immediate needs. That’s why Burnett says the town needed help connecting businesses and residents.
“It’s hard to have the money to invest in broadband. You can see how it can take a backseat,” she said. “So I really feel our state and federal governments need to lend a hand. We need to provide security and emergency services for our oil and gas industry. That means having broadband across the area. At the same time, we need internet to educate our children and to give our families access to healthcare.”
The town’s leaders are taking action to both improve local services and attract more industry and people to Monahans. A $140 million school bond was recently passed, a $24 million event center has opened, and several new housing additions have been built. They’ve made progress with their internet services, but the city is still working to connect that “last mile” of homes and businesses.
“One of the internet providers came in to lay copper for one housing project; they still didn’t let us have fiber,” Burnett said. “They also didn’t build it to accommodate more than just those initial homes, but we have another 100-plus acres that are being developed. Now, we’re having this problem all over again. It just blows my mind.”
If a rural resident or business does get access, there’s another barrier that many in urban areas don’t have to contend with: the high price of being online.
The Cost of Internet Access in Rural America
Reliable high-speed internet is so important to Porras that for years she shelled out $600 a month for it.
“We also paid extra for hot spots. We needed one for every computer to actually get the internet access and speeds needed to run the trucking business properly,” she said.
About two months ago, fiber was finally strung to her office, but she’s still paying high rates for that kind of high-speed internet access—about $1,000 a month. It’s even worse for her at home.
“To run fiber to my house is $10,000, and I live just one block from the spot where the provider stopped stringing fiber,” Porras said. “I don’t even have cell phone service or WiFi at night. I definitely can’t stream Netflix, and if I want to make a call or get online at midnight or later, forget it. There’s no connection at all. I have to try to do everything first thing in the morning.”
Burnett says that cost and lack of access has affected both residents and Monahans’ ability to attract and keep businesses.
“We lost a lot of companies because we didn’t have the fiber that they needed to run their businesses, so they had to look elsewhere. We’ve actually lost Fortune 500 companies because we didn’t have internet that’s sufficient for their needs,” she said. “At the same time, we’re hearing from more residents who might have fiber in place but are paying thousands of dollars for it. Still, even with those high rates, they’re not getting the service they’re paying for.”
It was so bad that Burnett says some local businesses had two internet service providers just in case one slowed or went down completely.
Help on the Horizon: Identifying Solutions
Recognizing the need in Monahans, the Still Water Foundation provided a grant to help develop a Technology Action Plan for the city. Connected Nation (CN) worked with local stakeholders to study the broadband landscape of the area and develop that plan through its Connected Community Engagement Program.
“As part of that work, we look at what the unique needs of a town or region are, assess current infrastructure, work with providers to identify opportunities, and more,” said Tom Stephenson, Community Technology Advisor, CN. “We learned, among other things, that nearly one-third of Monahans’ residents regularly telework, 35 percent of adults did not have home internet access, and the public safety agencies said their mobile networks were only ‘fair to poor.’ You can imagine, that last one was a big concern.”
Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas), a state program of Connected Nation, is now working across the state to identify nearly two dozen communities looking to also leverage the program for their town or region.
Burnett says utilizing Connected helped the city identify some solutions. They learned that some of the smaller internet service providers were more willing to invest in expanding broadband access—this is helping them bridge that connectivity gap. The updated maps provided through the Technology Action Plan also helped attract providers by demonstrating the need and business that could be found in Monahans.
In addition, they learned there was infrastructure along Business 20 – which runs next to Monahans—and lines running throughout the community. The city just needed to identify who owned the lines. Also, it was recommended that Monahans hire a consultant to help them navigate working with providers to expand service.
“I know that we’re getting closer to solving this issue," Burnett said, “and we finally got direction on how to start to address it thanks to the Connected program.”
You can find the Technology Action Plan developed for Ward County by clicking here. To learn more about the Connected Community Engagement Program, head to connectednation.org/connect-my-community/; to learn about Connected Nation Texas, head to www.connectednation.org/texas.
Visit the Monahans Chamber of Commerce at this link.