In Monahans, it’s not uncommon for people to head to the Ward County Library to use their reliable internet service. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio).
In rural West Texas, it doesn’t take much for your internet connection to go down. A pounding rainstorm, heavy winds, construction workers accidentally cutting a crucial cable — all very real scenarios that can leave you without internet for hours.
That’s why one listener submitted this West Texas Wonders question from Monahans: Will small west Texas towns ever have access to decent internet services?
If you’re going to try and find a reliable internet connection in rural Monahans, Texas your best bet is to look for books.
Inside the Ward County Library, there’s an island of about 15 computers.
That’s where 21-year-old Andrew Kagle is sitting. It’s midday, and he’s here surfing the web, before heading to his job at the local grocery store. There are about 10 more people here doing the same. There’s a kid watching YouTube videos of Dragonball Z. Others, applying for jobs. And on any given day, oilfield workers come to check their email before heading to the patch. Kagel says he comes about once a week; his family used to have internet but that’s changed.
“Now we’re really more on like cell phones and mobile hotspot stuff,” says Kagle.
That’s not too uncommon in Ward County. In a 2017 survey, out of 4,000 households, about 30 percent said they didn’t have internet services at home. When it comes to those that are connected, nearly 80 percent say they are dissatisfied with their service, according to the same internet-use survey.
But the Ward County Library just got outfitted with faster, more reliable internet.
“It’s so much more than books,” says Brenda Kizziar, the director of the Ward County Library.
“I don’t know if the patrons have noticed a difference,” says Kizziar. “But before….we were just having a lot of problems…”
Kizziar says she regularly sees more than 50 people a day, who come to the library to go online.
“After hours we notice that people are still outside, you know, in the parking lot using the WiFi.”
The library is filling in the gaps for some of the people that don’t have access to reliable internet. Throughout the rest of Monahans and Ward County, Kizziar says people are used to their connection at home going down.
“But I mean for this kind of rural area you know that’s kind of normal,” says Kizziar.”Like this last weekend, it was out for you to know a good 10, 12 hours.”
Bridging the Digital Divide
There have been efforts in the last few years to bring all of Ward County online with a reliable broadband internet connection.
As defined by the Federal Communications Commission, broadband is at a speed of 25 megabits down and 3 megabits up.
Basically, that means with broadband you can comfortably peruse the internet stream— high-def movies, play games — do things that take up a lot of data. Today, only 13 percent of Ward County households have access to this type of internet.
To bridge the digital divide, Chris Pederson with Connected Nation — a nonprofit that advocates for improving internet services across the country — says cities and counties in rural Texas first need to understand clearly where service is and where it isn’t.
“The thing that’s really illusive is demand,” says Pederson. “If a provider were to build out into a certain community in Texas, how much demand would there be?
Ward County officials don’t know how much demand there is among residents, but they do know slow internet is hindering some economic development.
“As you know we are flooded with sand mine companies in this area right now,” says Teresa Burnett, with the Monahans Chamber of Commerce. “I have 18 sand mine companies within a 50-mile radius of me.”
She says sand mine companies depend on reliable internet service.
In the past, Burnett says a Fortune 500 company was interested in Monahans but backed out because of the city’s lagging internet speed. She doesn’t want this to happen to the new sand-mining industry.
So Burnett is hoping for fiber, the fastest form of broadband, for the whole town.
And It Loads, Loads, Loads, The Ring of Fiber
Monahans officials are planning to install a ring of fiber around the city that will help with reliability.
“If it were up to me, this would be installed today,” says Burnett. “Unfortunately because of the expense and just putting everything in place, it takes a little longer than that.”
The “ring” would be a sure-fire way to ensure that the internet stays on even if a cable gets cut somewhere. Right now, the city is assessing the costs. But Burnett says they could start the process of installing the ring before the end of the year. If it proves successful, the fiber-ring could be expanded out towards surrounding communities and possibly Ward County.