If you drift off of Interstate 45 in East Texas, you’ll find a region of natural resources, rich with national forests, picturesque landscapes, clean air, and freshwater. Communities are linked by a partnership in the Deep East Texas Council of Governments (DETCOG) as well as a shared frustration with not being able to get broadband Internet access for miles.
DETCOG is both a state regional planning commission and federal economic development district. In a region of 12 counties where approximately 385,000 residents are spread over 10,000 square miles, the Council helps to support 911 services, justice systems, and essential family and youth services. One of its most pressing tasks is finding a way to connect its residents and businesses with affordable and reliable broadband connectivity.
The residents that Lonnie Hunt, the Council’s Executive Director, serves are friends and neighbors. Hunt affectionately called them the friendliest in the country and said, “We have to do more than get broadband. We have to find a way to get to every household and every business connected.”
“It’s hard to make a decent living in this economically distressed area, where the median income is way below the state average. Six of twelve counties have declined since the last U.S. census count. Many do not have access to broadband, a basic building block, which is directly related to population loss. When businesses move or shut down, jobs are lost, and no new jobs are created,” Hunt explained.
Texas is among nine states that does not collect income tax, making its cities and counties heavily dependent on property tax revenue and spending to improve quality of life and social services. As Hunt states, “We are not trying to compete with the urban and suburban areas. But, if we could flip the switch and create universal broadband throughout East Texas communities, it would create over 10,000 jobs and increase household income. We would be able to support many of the job opportunities that attract people to places like Houston and Dallas.”
Hunt and his team have done their homework. Over three years ago, they saw the significance and importance of connecting every household in one of the most underserved areas in the nation. He said, “Look at the maps. There’s a huge number of people in rural areas that cannot get a cell phone signal or the minimum connectivity required for a hot spot device. We need to create a regional network where everyone is served, even in places where there is no profit.”
In the initial phases, the Council’s plans will target low-income households around the region by putting a fiber backbone in place to support fixed wireless models wherever it is economically feasible. Plans for subsequent phases will leverage partnerships and rights of way agreements with regional cooperatives in a twelve county regional network. According to Hunt, “The rural electrification efforts connected farmers and ranchers. Now we have to find a way to run fiber to every home and farm.” He added that electric coops need to be a part of the equation as they already serve various parts of the region.
One of his colleagues called Hunt a broadband visionary. He declined the praise and said that he is just working to connect his community. “We’re serious about this.”