MARFA, Texas (CN) – Large swaths of rural Texas continue to lag far behind the state’s major metropolitan areas when it comes to high-speed internet, at a time when the United Nations considers online access to be a basic human right.
A new report from the Texas Comptroller’s Office paints a picture of the problem: more than 2 million households in the state lacking access to high-speed internet, a “digital divide” that advocates fear could stunt economic growth and pose barriers for health care access as technology becomes ever more essential to everyday life.
The situation is especially troublesome in West Texas, data from the Federal Communications Commission shows, where in some counties less than 1% of the population has access to high-speed internet.
“Life is internet,” said Teresa Burnett, head of the chamber of commerce in Monahans, Texas, an oilfield town of less than 8,000 people. “It’s not a luxury, it’s a have-to.”
Most of Burnett’s town is situated in a county where just 1.8% of the population has high-speed internet, considered by the FCC to be connections with at least a 25 megabits per second download speed and a 3 mbps upload speed.
Generally speaking, that’s the kind of speed people need to use the internet for basic things like making high-quality calls or watching and uploading videos, but it’s also a business necessity.
In Monahans, which lies in the heart of the nation’s largest and most active oilfield, energy companies hoping to set up a local office have had to move elsewhere because of the area’s lagging internet capabilities, Burnett said.
“You’re losing families,” she said in an interview. “You’re losing good quality, high-paying jobs, families that are going to come to your community, that are going to be good stewards to the community.”
Other parts of the region’s bedrock industry have had to invest in their own internet upgrades where the local infrastructure is lacking. That’s been the case with companies that have rushed into the region in recent years to supply the ingredients used in fracking.
“The sand mining companies have such advanced technology that they’ve had to go in and spend millions of dollars to get the internet out on their locations,” Burnett said. “That has been a major issue with these companies.”
“We’ve gotten to the point that broadband is like electricity,” said Jennifer Harris, Texas program director for Connected Nation, an advocacy organization that works to improve internet access across the U.S.
Like the historical spread of electricity, Harris said, there are still parts of rural America where internet providers just don’t see an economic incentive for expanding or upgrading their services.
“It doesn’t fit their business model to go spend money to lose money, so that’s part of the equation,” Harris said. “But does that mean these people don’t need internet?”
Part of Connected Nation’s approach to the problem is exploring grant funding and public-private partnerships for communities that need better internet access.
In Monahans, the group helped launch a “community technology action plan” involving internet companies and the local government, and it plans to work with at least 23 other communities in Texas on similar projects.
Meanwhile, the FCC is funneling $82.4 million to Texas internet providers over the next decade to help expand broadband access in rural areas, according to an agency spokesperson.
Burnett said once the project in her town is finished, she hopes to put together a sort of “manual” for neighboring small towns.
“This is not something we need to be selfish about,” she said. “It’s something that’s going to benefit the whole region.”