It should be noted that the assessment was conducted during the global COVID-19 pandemic. This worldwide event likely impacted many of the metrics included in this assessment.
Fixed broadband is delivered to a user via several technology platforms including cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) over phone lines, fiber optics, and fixed wireless. Fixed broadband is designed for stationary use at a fixed location such as a home, business, or institution. From one location, however, fixed broadband service is often broadcast as a Wi-Fi network to connect nearby devices.
The following map shows where broadband is available in the community.
From October 2021 to February 2022, Wichita County stakeholders, in partnership with Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas), collected surveys across nine community sectors to assess the connectivity, affordability, and general technology needs of Wichita County residents. The local broadband team, led by County Judge Woody Gossom, brought together community stakeholders spanning education, government, health care, business, and technology. With Judge Gossom’s upcoming retirement in December 2022, it is paramount that Wichita County establishes a dedicated, and long-term, broadband team to ensure work completed as part of this community engagement is carried forth and that the community stays up to date on state, local, and federal broadband happenings.
Establish a broadband team in Wichita County that can serve as the point of contact for questions, meetings, and projects.
Action 1 – Create a Wichita County Broadband Committee with leaders from each community sector. Wichita County should establish a local network of leaders who are passionate about improving broadband throughout the community. A standing group of leaders has already been active in the broadband space — it’s a matter of making this team official as survey results are published and grant opportunities arise. This group should function as an overseer of broadband progress, ensuring realistic timelines, budget, and connectivity speeds are being achieved and maintained.
The Broadband Committee could have representation from the following community sectors:
- Health Care: Local physicians or hospital staff: Electra Hospital, Red River Hospital, VA Medical Clinic, Community Healthcare Center of Wichita Falls, local physicians serving in private practice (e.g., veterinarians, dentists, primary care), and others
- Government: County Judge, County Commissioners, Mayor, City Council, County IT Director
- Education (K-12): Superintendents, School IT Directors: Iowa Park CISD, Burkburnett ISD, City View ISD, Electra ISD, Wichita Falls ISD, private and charter schools
- Education (Higher Education): Midwestern State, Vernon College, Wayland Baptist University
- Public Safety: Sheriff’s Office, Police and Fire Departments, Emergency Management
- Agriculture: County Agriculture Agent, leading agriculture producers
- Business: Local chamber of commerce and economic development centers
- Community At Large: A local resident who is interested in furthering the broadband agenda of Wichita County
Action 1A – Determine ongoing responsibilities of the Wichita County Broadband Committee. Assigning the local committee specific duties will help ensure long-term success.
The committee’s responsibilities should include:
- Stay up to date on state and federal broadband legislation
- Apply for applicable state and federal grant programs
- Ensure digital engagement in Wichita County in all community sectors (telehealth, telework, online learning, Wi-Fi in businesses, etc.)
- Attend workshops, webinars, meetings, and general training that discuss broadband specifically and telecommunications generally
- Provide digital literacy and digital skills assistance to at-risk populations in the community
- Hold regular meetings. The committee should meet at least once a month. Meetings can be held virtually, in person, or in a hybrid capacity to accommodate the needs of its members. These meetings should provide updates on community activities, allow time for guest speakers and presentations, and offer an open forum for discussion about broadband advancements in Wichita County.
Action 2 – Create a technology portal or website to promote local broadband resources. The website should serve as a one-stop resource for broadband providers, residents, and local leaders. The website should include resources related to digital literacy, digital skills, reduced-cost broadband offerings in the county, public computing centers, and other relevant information for residents and internet service providers (ISPs). Resources could be added to an existing county or city website.
Action 3 – Track state and national broadband policy. The Broadband Committee should remain informed and up to date on any publications, events, and policy briefs published by the (1) Governor’s Broadband Development Council (GBDC) and (2) Broadband Development Office (BDO). The BDO is guiding broadband efforts at the state level. More information about the office can be found in the Resources section below. The committee should coordinate ongoing community outreach efforts and initiatives in accordance with the long-term objectives of the aforementioned entities. Local broadband teams should mirror the successes and objectives laid out by the state.
Community anchor institutions: libraries, schools, businesses, nonprofits, etc.; internet service providers; local units of government; community residents
Since Wichita County already has leaders identified in most community sectors, the next step is to begin building out the network to include other interested community contacts.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as a minimum of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. In Wichita County, survey results indicate 54% of internet-connected households subscribe to download speeds faster than 25 Mbps. Residents reported their average download speed to be 49.3 Mbps. While this is nearly double the federal standard, this speed only supports about five to seven devices at a time. For homes relying on multiple digital devices, including smart TVs, gaming consoles, laptops, and cell phones, five to seven is a relatively small (and limiting) number. On average, households that subscribe to the internet in Wichita County report having 15.5 internet-connected devices in their homes. With telework, telehealth, remote learning, online gaming, and television streaming, the need for a fast and reliable home internet connection is in high demand.
While the current federal definition of broadband is 25x3 Mbps, many funding programs now require ISPs to provide speeds of at least 100x20 Mbps to qualify for funding. This greater threshold provides for more connected devices at a single time and greater digital opportunities. To attract businesses, retain skilled workers, and encourage community and economic development, Wichita County should bring 100 Mbps connections to all community institutions, ensuring quality internet connections for all. Ian Greenblatt, Managing Director of J.D. Power’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Intelligence business unit, says it best: “Without broadband, you might see lower property values, decreased job and population growth, lower rates of business formation, higher unemployment rates. These are all part and parcel of a geographic inability to access the internet.”
Bring 100x20 Mbps connectivity to Wichita County residents in partnership with broadband providers and community stakeholders.
Action 1 – Review current and planned broadband deployments in the county. The first step to increase broadband speeds across Wichita County is meeting with local broadband providers, including those who have been allocated funding through the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction to determine the community’s infrastructure needs (i.e., what needs to be updated or replaced, costs, and obstacles). Many of these conversations were already started at the March 29th Wichita County Provider Meeting. As new funding sources become available, the county should touch base with providers to determine the best use of monies and determine areas of the community that will benefit the most from improved (or new) infrastructure.
Wichita County RDOF Phase I Winners
- Charter, 139 locations ($43,046)
- LTD Broadband, 49 locations ($52,818)
- NTS Communications, 5 locations ($4,273)
- Resound Networks, LLC, 454 locations ($384,334)
Providers in Wichita County (data published January 31, 2022, CN Texas)
- AMA TechTel Communications
- AT&T Southwest
- Cobalt Ridge
- Electra Telephone Co.
- Nextlink Residential
- Santa Rosa Telephone Company
- Suddenlink Communications
- Texhoma Wireless
- TGM Pinnacle Network Solutions
- Valor Communications of Texas LP
Action 1A – Provide survey results and interactive map to providers. When meeting with ISPs, it is important to share the results of the survey and provide an overview of the interactive map. More than 2 out of 5 residents who do not subscribe to broadband (44.2%) said it was because service was too expensive. This highlights the need for affordable options in Wichita County. ISPs should be asked what supplemental programs they can promote or offer throughout the community to bridge this gap. Of those who do subscribe to the internet, 41.4% said their current service plan does not meet their needs. This granular local data paints a unique picture that should be used to enrich the quality, type, and location of services offered throughout the community.
Action 2 – Consider public-private partnerships. Public-private partnerships (P3s) take many forms, depending on the needs and resources of each community. The strength of these partnerships is that each party brings something important to the table that the other lacks or cannot easily acquire. For example, Wichita County can offer infrastructure (e.g., publicly owned buildings, light poles, towers, other vertical assets for mounting fixed wireless or wireline infrastructure) for the deployment of a network and guarantee committed anchor tenants and possible funding sources.
- Model 1: Private Investment, Public Facilitation— Make available public assets, share geographic information and systems data, and streamline permitting and inspection processes. Offer economic development incentives to attract private broadband investment.
- Model 2: Private Execution, Public Funding —Identify revenue streams that can be directed to a private partner. Funding may include appropriated payments from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds established by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, Reconnect Loan and Grant Program, and several others listed on Connected Nation’s website. New revenue streams are likely to become available from the FCC and/or state government.
- Model 3: Shared Investment and Risk— Evaluate how to best use assets to attract private investment, evaluate funding new assets to attract private investment, evaluate building new broadband assets to businesses and/or homes for leasing to private ISPs.
Action 2A – Develop a strategy to attract profitable partnerships and maximize grant opportunities. When seeking providers to partner with, the community should think long term. The landmark Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in November 2021, promises $65 billion for broadband. These funds will be used in a variety of ways, but the biggest chunk of money is designated for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD). BEAD funding will be allocated to states, which will then be responsible for doling it out according to a set plan. As the Wichita County community plans for these funds, it is important to consider reliable partners, matching funds, and long-term technology solutions. Additional commentary from technology and policy experts has been linked in the Resource section below.
Action 3 – Prepare sample grant applications and supporting documents for upcoming funding opportunities. Wichita County should monitor funding sources at the state and federal levels that promise money for broadband expansion and improvement projects. Application windows are historically very brief, and application reviews are very competitive. Therefore, it is very important for communities, especially rural ones, to have smart, well-written applications with supporting data ready to go. It is not only important to be prepared in advance of an application window, but it is important to prioritize forward- and long-term-thinking when applying for funding. Wichita County residents will continue to need broadband for telehealth, telework, communication, public safety, and entertainment. As demand rises, infrastructure will need to support varied and broad uses.
Funding sources include:
- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
- A minimum of $100 million will be allocated to the state of Texas.
- The state is responsible for developing and distributing these funds.
- Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds
- The U.S. Treasury Department issued its Final Rule on January 6, 2022, expanding the use of funds for broadband.
- Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CPF)
- Under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the CPF provides $10 billion to eligible governments to carry out critical capital projects that directly enable work, education, and health monitoring.
- The Texas State Legislature appropriated all the funding from the CPF for broadband purposes. The Broadband Development Office (BDO) plans to stand up a competitive grant process to support local broadband projects around the state. More information can be found on the BDO’s website (linked below).
- Economic Adjustment Assistance
- The Economic Adjustment Assistance Program, through the EDA, makes $500 million in grants available to American communities. A wide range of technical, planning, workforce development, entrepreneurship, public works, and infrastructure projects are eligible for funding.
Action 3A – Contract with a grant writer to expedite the application process and ensure that opportunities are not missed. As previously mentioned, grant application windows are short and review processes competitive. Should a community eligible grant be identified, Wichita County should work with a reliable grant writer who can accurately capture the needs and wants of Wichita County residents, businesses, and community leaders in writing. More information on grant writing can be found in Goal 6.
Local units of government; broadband providers; community and regional organizations
Wichita County leaders should begin meeting with broadband providers within three months of receiving this plan. Increasing broadband speeds will increase the number of opportunities for residents, businesses, educators, and community leaders. Grant writing activities should commence as applicable opportunities arise.
Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information. It requires both cognitive and technical skills. When answering digital literacy questions on the residential survey, responses ranged from “I need to learn,” and “I know a little,” to “I’m comfortable with this.” Wichita County businesses report that 30.5% of their staff are advanced technology users with high-level digital skills, and an additional 43.2% are moderate technology users. Nearly one-quarter of businesses (22.5%) said that the technology skills of their employees are a poor match for the business’ needs, or only match the needs of the company fairly well. These data reflect the need for residents to focus on increasing their technology skills. Ultimately, technology skills are paramount to competitiveness in the workforce, community development in an uber-digital society, and to general quality of life (e.g., telehealth, teleworking, etc.).
Furthermore, Wichita County has the unique opportunity to provide digital literacy support to the spouses stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base. Life in the military is often hallmarked by change, specifically in the form of moving from base to base and state to state. This revolving door of change can make it hard for military spouses to find steady work outside of the home. Telework is the prime solution if the user has the skills and knowledge to operate a digital device. For their part, the Wichita County Broadband Committee should create a digital readiness program for military spouses. The program should cover telework basics and equip participants with skills necessary for landing a job (e.g., resume building, interview skills, etc.). This program should extend to the full community and include digital skills, digital literacy, and workforce development curriculum to benefit all Wichita County residents.
The Wichita County Broadband Committee should partner with local stakeholders to put on community workshops with workforce development and digital literacy focused curricula.
Action 1 – Look to other communities for examples of how to get started. Community organizations across the state and the country have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to bridge the Digital Divide, specifically as it relates to digital literacy. Examples include the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative in Buffalo, N.Y.; the Digital Literacy Coaches and Navigator Program in Wisconsin; Opportunity Las Cruces with the local Economic Development Department and Workforce Development and Career Center; digital literacy certification and computer training in Plainfield, N.J.; and Senior Connect in Austin, Texas. Each of these programs is unique, but their underlying current is the drive to provide free digital training and support to the community. The hope is that residents will be able to use the internet with ease and greater confidence after engaging with one of these local programs. To learn more about any of these initiatives, please see the links in the Resource section below.
Developing curriculum for workforce development and digital literacy courses is underway across the state of Texas and the country. It’s likely that organizations in Wichita County already have basic curriculum prepared for such workshops. The Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce offers great programs, such as BOSS and the Circuit, that are enriching the skills (and professional networks) of employees throughout the community.
Action 2 – Partner with community stakeholders for workshop execution. Industry leaders can speak to the importance of broadband in their lines of work, as well as discuss its myriad uses. For example, a banker can discuss the benefits of online banking, while the school IT Director can discuss the importance of online safety. Wichita County already has the resources (both personnel and curriculum) to deliver quality programs to the community.
- Goodwill Industries of Southwest Oklahoma & North Texas
- Workforce Solutions of North Texas (Wichita Falls Office)
- Nortex Regional Planning Commission
- Chambers of Commerce: Wichita Falls, Burkburnett, Iowa Park, Electra
- Libraries: Wichita Falls, Burkburnett, Iowa Park, Electra
- Burkburnett Rotary Club
Workshop topics to consider:
- Intro to Microsoft Office Suite
- About: Train employees on the basics of Microsoft Office Suite given its ubiquitous use in companies/industries.
- Who: Wichita Chamber of Commerce
- How to teleconference
- About: What is telework, and why is it appealing for employees and employers?
- Who: Wichita Chamber of Commerce
- Intro to social media and websites
- How can an online presence help a business grow and improve productivity?
- Who: Wichita Chamber of Commerce
- Telehealth 101
- About: Discuss terminology commonly associated with telemedicine and the benefits of virtual health care.
- Who: Local hospital/medical professionals
- Just what the doctor ordered
- About: Discuss how residents can use free and reduced-cost digital services to improve physical and mental health.
- Who: Local hospital/medical professionals
- Online safety tips and tricks
- About: Discuss how to keep you, your family, and your information safe online.
- Who: Wichita Falls Police or Sheriff’s Department
- Effective online learning and teaching strategies
- About: Discuss what teachers and students can do to maximize the benefits of online learning.
- Who: Iowa Park CISD, Burkburnett ISD, City View ISD, Electra ISD, Wichita Falls ISD, private and charter schools
- Continuing-education opportunities
- About: What programs, courses, and classes are available for students who would like to continue learning beyond the classroom. Discussions can address available resources for residents who would like to return to college, obtain a certification or GED, or complete continuing-education courses.
- Who: Iowa Park CISD, Burkburnett ISD, City View ISD, Electra ISD, Wichita Falls ISD, private and charter schools
Residents; Local units of government; community organizations; Businesses; internet service providers
Digital literacy and workforce development programs are important in the here and now. Classes should be offered by Fall 2022. Curricula should be reviewed and updated every three to four months.
Action 1 – Host broadband meetings with regional stakeholders. Boasting a hospital, a university, active businesses, and a young population, Wichita County is a hub of activity in the region. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age in Wichita County is 34.6, slightly lower than the state average. With once-in-a-lifetime levels of funding allocated for broadband in the Infrastructure Bill (IIJA), it is important to think regionally. Just as it is important for Wichita County to have improved connectivity, it is important for neighboring communities to also be connected. There is power and value in community partnerships, especially when those communities share rural Texas values.
All surrounding counties, including Cotton, Archer, Wilbarger, Tillman, Clay, and Baylor counties, have received funding to complete similar community broadband assessments, with more to come. At the conclusion of all county engagements, communities will be able to compare data findings, discuss outreach strategies, and share tips and tricks for improving broadband with each other based upon shared interests and experiences.
Action 1 – Promote and share information about programs that help residents overcome the affordability barrier to broadband adoption, including Lifeline and the Affordable Connectivity Program.
- Lifeline Program: This is a government assistance program run by the Public Utility Commission of Texas that provides a discount to qualifying low-income customers who subscribe to voice telephone service or broadband internet access service. The Lifeline discount for qualifying low-income customers may be up to $12.75 per month, depending on the services a resident subscribes to and the customer’s eligibility. Lifeline service is non-transferrable and is limited to one discount per household. More information can be found on the Public Utility Commission of Texas’ website.
- Affordable Connectivity Program: Once known as the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the Affordable Connectivity Program was made permanent with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (commonly referred to as the Infrastructure Bill). The program provides a $30 per month discount for broadband with participating providers. For more information, visit the FCC’s webpage.
Action 1 – Pursue grants to advance local community development using broadband technologies (e.g., workforce development, telehealth, digital literacy, etc.). In conjunction with the countywide Connected Engagement program, Wichita County has been allocated funding to pursue applicable grant opportunities. For specifics, please contact your Broadband Solutions Manager.
The goals and actions outlined in this document provide the framework for county leaders to prepare for and pursue applicable funding opportunities and program advancements designed to close the Digital Divide in Wichita County. Through countywide partnerships and collaborative efforts, the community can advocate and provide equitable, affordable, and reliable broadband access for all residents, businesses, and community anchor institutions. CN Texas is grateful for the continued leadership and partnership of County Judge Woody Gossom and members of the Wichita County Broadband Team.