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Ordinary people taking extraordinary measures to access the internet they need

“The internet should be looked at like a necessity—something we need, like electricity or water.”

by Jessica Denson, Communications Director
Connected Nation

Milam County, Texas (January 26, 2021) – Jeremy and Courtney Renaud run the Bling Box Boutique, a small business tucked away in downtown Cameron, Texas. The town has just three stoplights and about 5,000 people.

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The Renaud family: Jeremy, Shelby, and Courtney

“It’s a very tiny and tight-knit community. Football is everything here,” Jeremy Renaud explained. “We love it, but for a business owner it can be tough to make it in a small town.”

It got especially tough during the pandemic, when the Renauds had to close to foot traffic.

“Courtney and I are not quitters,” he said. “We worked hard to create a new promotional video every night for 39 nights in a row to keep our business going—prepping, marketing, packaging the orders. We had to do it to break even. The bills did not stop just because we couldn’t open our doors. If we didn’t have technology or the internet, we would be gone.”

They were lucky to have internet access at all—and only because Renaud went to extraordinary lengths over the years to make sure the business not only had an online presence but stayed online.

“I had to get real good at internet marketing and finding ways to have stable internet to survive,” he said. “I think every business owner should pay for two internet connections. I actually have four connections at my building. I know that might sound ridiculous, but that’s what it takes here to stay connected to the outside world when you’re based in a small town or rural area.”

The different services not only provide the combined upload and download speeds needed, but also the redundancy that keeps the business online even if one service goes out. It costs him $500 a month, but without it, Renaud says his business would fold.

Reliable internet access is not just an issue for businesses. Families are struggling to get what they need, too.

Home is not where the internet is

James Garcia lives about 30 miles down the road from Cameron, just outside of Thorndale, Texas.

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Look closely: you can see the Garcia family's two ISP connections. On the left (west) side of the roof is the LTE connection for Farm to Market; on the right (east) side of the roof is an antenna pointed to Rise Broadband. Click image to enlarge.

Garcia works for GitHub, a software collaboration platform home to more than 56 million developers. Its headquarters are in San Francisco, far from where Garcia lives and works.

“I’m not traveling anymore to see my customers because of the pandemic. It’s all online meetings, whether it’s Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Skype, and I cannot have a bad internet connection,” he said.

He also points out that he has three kids, ages 2, 5 and 8, and a wife who is a teacher—all of whom need internet access at different times, whether for entertainment or school.

“If my wife’s connection goes down, it doesn’t just affect her. It affects 26 kids who are trying to take part in her class,” he said. “She also has a lot of grading to do and sometimes has to leave and go to school late at night just to do her job.”

So, Garcia did what the Renauds did—signed up for multiple providers but with one big difference. Garcia wasn’t looking for redundancy, he was just hoping to get basic internet coverage.

“I started with one service eight years ago, but it was virtually unusable during prime-time hours (7-10 p.m.),” he said. “Then, I saw Farm-to-Market being installed at a neighbor’s house and added that service. They actually had to move my antenna because a new barn had been built and was in the way of the signal.”

He also has a Verizon hotspot as a backup in case his other services go down.  Still, it’s not enough.

“We have to go into town to download things to our iPads for the kids or our work. Those products are not really meant for lots of storage, so I built a plex service in a closet and loaded up all my DVDs on it,” he said. “It acts like a local Netflix, but it’s not going over the internet connection. We also have security cameras out here, but we can’t monitor them while away, only when at home.”

Garcia says he was surprised that it was so difficult to get the high-speed internet he and his family needed—he just took for granted that he was covered.

“People are moving out of the cities and look at broadband coverage maps and think they have options. I was the same. When I moved out here, I thought, ‘Oh, I just need to get internet now,’” he said. “I’d call a provider that offered the speeds we needed, they’d tell me I should be covered, I’d put in in my application, and then no one would even come out. I went through that process again and again.”

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Jennifer Harris, State Program Director, Connected Nation Texas

Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas) has been working since 2019 to improve broadband coverage maps and help local communities develop Technology Action Plans. CN Texas is the state program of Connected Nation, a national nonprofit focused on expanding high-speed internet access, adoption, and use to all people across the country. 

“When Connected Nation Texas started working with rural communities through our Connected Community Engagement program in 2019, we had financial support from the Texas Rural Funders to work with 24 communities on broadband connectivity,” said Jennifer Harris, State Program Director, Connected Nation Texas. “The demand has increased so much that the financial support has since grown to help us support 27 communities across the state.”

Milam County is among those communities. The nonprofit is seeking community input on both the broadband maps and a local technology survey (linked below) in an effort to develop a local Technology Action Plan and improve high-speed internet access across the county.

“We need as many people and organizations in our county as possible to take part in this survey. It is key to ensuring we are developing a plan that accurately reflects the unique challenges and opportunities for expanding access and improving speeds across the county,” said Michelle Morgan, Economic Director, Milam County. “We all need access to high-speed internet—kids need access for remote learning, adults need access for teleworking, seniors need access for telehealth visits, and our local businesses need access to a global marketplace.”

The internet is not “optional”

When the Renauds started the Bling Box 12 years ago, they were taking orders on a Dollar General receipt pad and paper. They set up their first website four years later and then started leveraging the internet to grow their business.

“I was self-taught. I learned how to use each new platform—YouTube, Instagram, Facebook—and each one was a new challenge,” said Renaud. “Just when you think you got it figured out, it changes again, especially Facebook, but a business owner must evolve. I call it ‘pivot and move.’”

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The Bling Box store front

The approach worked. They moved from small house parties showcasing jewelry Courtney Renaud hand-made, to a store that fit only four people, to the 1,500-square-foot business they now run selling clothes, jewelry, and other luxury items.

“We have two full-timers and two to three part-timers, and we ship nationwide every day at 4 o’clock,” he said. “Every business owner, whether they sell shoes or cheeseburgers, needs a website. Even if you don’t want to sell online, people want to go online and learn about your business—have photos of your business or your menu online. You must have, at the very least, an informative site, then, if you choose, you can easily move into ecommerce.”

Right now, the Bling Box has four internet companies connecting them to their local, national, and global e-commerce markets. Renaud uses to switch services seamlessly when one goes down.

“The days of having to teach every employee how to switch over the internet, reboot, and restart a transaction are over,” Renaud explained. “I’ve been telling other local business owners to do this and get at least two connections, because when the internet goes down, they can’t even run a sale, but my company is still up and running.”

Like the Renauds’ business, Garcia says the whole county is growing quickly, and internet service providers are going to have a tough time keeping up.

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Garcia's UniFi Dream Machine Pro (UDM-Pro), which serves as essentially the family's router and firewall. This does periodic measurements of bandwidth and latency coming from an Internet Service Provider. The green signifies download, purple represents upload. Click image to enlarge.

“We have several new neighborhoods being built in Milam County, and those people are going to want internet, so that’s going to strain the system further,” he said. “These are $300,000 homes built for people wanting to move out of Austin. Lots of those people are going to have high-tech jobs and need high-speed internet.”

He says he understands that there are physical and financial challenges for providers to reach rural areas, but Garcia also points out that it may no longer be “optional” to not invest in these communities.

“The internet should be looked at like a necessity—something we need, like electricity or water. People are working from home more often and, at any moment, school could be back to all-virtual for our kids. Having internet access is no longer just optional.”

Provide feedback on the statewide broadband coverage maps:

Take the technology survey for Milam County here:

The Bling Box Boutique, LLC: