by Jessica Denson, Director of Communications
McCamey, TX (September 19, 2019) – Clayton Walker knows the Texas landscape well. For years, he’s been doing some of the heavy lifting that’s needed to expand broadband across the Lone Star State.
“It takes me and my crews about one day to put about a mile of aerial fiber up and another day to splice it all in, and about a week for 1 mile underground, depending on digging conditions,” Walker said. “That’s on average, if everything goes well.”
Walker owns C&J Cable, LLC, which he started in April 2018. However, he does contract work for AT&T all over the state to help offset his own business costs.
“Each place we go has its different set of challenges. For instance, I’m heading to Midland soon, and it’s all rock down there,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter where you go in Texas—San Antonio, Midland, Austin, McCamey—people are tired of waiting for broadband. It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural. Everyone needs it. I even did work in Alpine where the ranchers desperately needed access to technology.”
For many rural communities in Texas and elsewhere, having access can mean the difference between thriving and barely surviving.
One Town’s Story: Upgrading McCamey
Walker’s company is based in McCamey, Texas—a city that decided to tackle its own access problems by leveraging the Connected Community Engagement Program (ConnectedSM), a program of the nonprofit Connected Nation. Connected’s staff helped McCamey’s leaders develop a Technology Action Plan that was specific to the town’s needs.
“Shortly after we released the plan, this young man walked into our offices who does contracting and lays down fiber lines,” Alicia Sanchez, Executive Director of McCamey Economic Development Corporation, told CN last September. “I told him about the survey and that we had learned most residents felt they needed high-speed internet and were underserved. There was a market for a company who would upgrade everyone’s service.”
Walker bought a local cable/internet company that was going out of business. He moved the business into McCamey’s incubator offices and began working to upgrade the internet and cable systems across the area. Now, a year later, C&J’s employees are making progress.
“We have since laid 5 miles of fiber and have 22 miles left to go,” Walker said. “Our wireless network can reach just about everybody in town now and most people on the outskirts. Once we’re done upgrading the system with fiber, it will reach about 95 percent of the town.”
The upgrades are critical for McCamey. One reason: The community, like other rural Texas towns, is having a difficult time attracting or holding onto teachers and law enforcement officials. That’s partly because the housing market fluctuates wildly during oil booms or busts.
“As a result, many communities are offering special housing or apartments to teachers and law enforcement, and businesses like C&J Cable are following suit with special offers,” said Tom Stephenson, Community Technology Advisor, Connected Nation Texas. “Clayton is offering free packages at slower internet speeds or a reduced rate on a high-speed internet package, and most are going for those higher speeds. I think that’s a sign of what many people need to live in rural communities.”
Expanding broadband access is not just keeping key professionals in the area. It’s also helping power new business for McCamey.
“We’ve got a lot of solar and wind companies coming into the area now,” said Sanchez. “Because of that, we have a huge need to provide access to new apartment complexes and RV parks. In fact, we just got a new RV park with 100 spots. But that can cost Clayton as much as $30,000 up front to provide services. We can’t expect him to do that on his own. So there are a range of things rural communities like ours must tackle to get the access we need.”
Some communities have identified federal funding programs like the USDA ReConnect program, which is targeting rural areas. Such programs often find it difficult to navigate the complexities of the application process and administration if awarded. Moreover, broadband providers often struggle to find the workers to not only build networks but maintain them locally.
“It’s a challenge. There’s a lot of out-of-pocket expense. I need to be able to pay more to get workers and must front the cost of expanding service,” Walker said. “At the same time, I have to pull crews back and forth to work on contract projects to support all of that, so that slows our progress down.”
Houston, We Have Problems…and Solutions
Connected Nation has worked in Texas communities for years, but this June the nonprofit officially relaunched Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas).
The relaunch of the state program followed CN’s work in late 2018 with the Texas Rural Funders Collaborative to gather data through a series of listening tours and focus groups and to develop the Texas Broadband Funding Guide. The Collaborative is now providing funding to CN Texas to accelerate efforts in the state.
“This will be a three-pronged approach. We’re focused on getting good data in decision-makers’ hands, helping people learn about the benefits of broadband, and understanding the obstacles and opportunities for expanding access to rural Texans,” explained Chris Pedersen, Vice President of Planning and Development, CN. “We want to empower Texas leaders—at the local and state level—with a neutral resource center and clearinghouse for broadband information. This can help inform everything from infrastructure planning to economic development.”
According to data released by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in May, 31.1 percent of rural Texans lack access to high-speed internet. That’s compared to just 2.6 percent in urban areas. In addition, each rural community may have similar challenges—but they also have needs that are unique to their area.
CN Texas has already begun statewide data-collection efforts and will eventually launch community broadband planning. The organization is also meeting with providers, local leaders, families, agricultural producers, and many others to identify who is unserved or underserved, as well as the needs and challenges that are unique to rural areas.
“We have worked in more than 300 communities across the United States to develop Technology Action Plans that targeted their specific needs and challenges,” said Stephenson. “Although we’ve done work in Texas, I’m excited that we are again taking an even wider approach to helping more Texas communities.
“McCamey is just one example of the positive change that can begin to happen when you have a plan and understand the data,” he continued. “I’ve been lucky to witness Clayton and Alicia work in their own ways to improve the lives of others. I can’t wait to see the next Texas community that shows us how it can thrive when combining its local assets with planning resources to expand broadband.”
To learn more about the Connected Community Engagement Program, head to connectmycommunity.org or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, you can see more images from C&J Cable’s staff working in the field in the below slideshow.
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