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Ector County, Texas, Broadband Task Force Asks for $1.2M in Funds

County commissioners listened to a request for broadband funding from the ConnEctor task force that would help establish a nonprofit connector broadband office to better serve Internet access to residents.

(TNS) — Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri asked the Ector County Commissioners for $1.2 million as part of the ConnEctor Taskforce's efforts to bring high-speed, affordable broadband to the area.

Muri said 25 percent of that has to come from the local community.

Commissioners listened, but no vote was taken.

Muri said he and other task force members at the meeting Tuesday are seeking funding to establish a nonprofit, 501c3 organization entitled the connector broadband office.

The office would be community based and governed by a board made up of community members. One member of the broadband board will have engineering experience. Other members will come from the nonprofit community, utility providers, as well as local county governments, should the county provide funding for this effort.

Once a board of directors is established, the board will hire an executive director to oversee the work for the next three years.

"This executive director position will be a full-time position charged with generating the dollars that will fund this, as well as the execution of this shovel-ready plan within our community," Muri said.

He added that there are some initial start-up costs. The $1.2 million would be spent over three years to hire the executive director, "and do the work of the broadband office to bring high-speed broadband to our community."

"We will retain legal counsel in the establishment of this 501 c3 and the work done by the executive director will have legal support. We will hire a coordinator to support the start-up of this process. We will have a communications plan, so part of this expenditure will also be to communicate ... One of the things we've learned during this process is that the education of our community is critically important. There are individuals and families and business that will need to understand the why. Why is broadband important to you? How would it affect your business? How does that affect your family, etc. So some of this work will simply be educating our community in these opportunities," Muri said.

"We'll also provide technical support using these funds for the implementation of our plan ...," he added.

He said they will also need technical assistance to fill out and complete the grant process as it is complex.

"We must demonstrate as a community that this investment is something that we want. It is something that we are committed to and there are a variety of actions that we have to take locally in order to qualify for these federal dollars," Muri said.

They would start identifying board members in November and form the connector office.

In December, they would establish charter, mission and goals. They would also make a budget working with consultation of an attorney.

At the end of December-early January, they would launch a search for an executive director and during January and early February they would hire the executive director and January into February they would being the preparation and application process for the federal funds.

Muri said they anticipate knowing better how much the state of Texas will receive in the new year.

Gaby Rowe, who led Operation Connectivity team for Texas during COVID, emphasized that this is a competitive process and $4 billion is not anywhere close to the amount that the state needs to bring last-mile connectivity to every household in the state.

It would take, five, six maybe even 10 times more, Rowe said.

The preparation phase is 12 to 18 months long and the building phase is about 12 months, she said.

Along with education around adoption of broadband there also is a workforce development component, which means developing training courses for local citizens to become installation techs, maintenance techs for connectivity working with local higher education to develop that as sustainable programs in the community to create jobs, Rowe said.

"The greater share of that that is taking place in the community, the higher the point score with a competitive bid," Rowe said. "It's not just a win-win of bringing the connectivity and the economic development that goes with that, but also that comes with the workforce development and the digital skilling for the citizens," Rowe said.

The Texas Comptroller's Office and federal government will soon begin the process of awarding the funds.

"The federal government has set up a competitive grant process. But we anticipate in the state of Texas alone we'll have access to $4 billion as a state. But those dollars will be distributed on a competitive basis. This will simply not be apply and receive. There will be very stringent guidelines in place. It will be communities such as ours that currently we are one of four communities in our state of Texas that have assembled a cross-functional group of individuals that are focused on bringing high-speed broadband to its community," Muri added.

He said it will be groups like the ConnEctor Taskforce and communities like this one that will have access to those dollars.

When the infrastructure is built, it would be self-sustaining. The county would not have to subsidize it in perpetuity, Muri said.

"... Not every community in Texas will receive these dollars. There will be winners and there will be losers and it is our opportunity as a community to be a winner in this competitive grant process ...," Muri said.

Only 16 percent of residents in rural areas have access to fixed high-speed broadband, Muri said.

"In west and south Odessa nearly one in four individuals, families, have connected households. That's 23 percent report paying more than $100 per month when the national average for high-speed broadband in the home is $58 and that's in our county today. Broadband access is an economic driver in the state of Texas. One in five Ector County Independent School District students rarely or never have reliable Internet access in their home. ... Students without reliable Internet access are located all over our county; not in specific areas or pockets. This issue is all over Ector County," Muri said.

"About one in six households in West and south Odessa report having no Internet connection. ... Most Internet subscribing households in West and south Odessa, which would be 75 percent, are dissatisfied with the current Internet service that is provided in their homes and nearly every respondent to a survey that we conducted, 99 percent of families, are interested in more choices and options for the Internet service providers that currently feed their home," Muri added.

Commissioner Greg Simmons said broadband would be a benefit, but he still has questions.

"I'm still curious as to how why the federal government is giving the money out and they've done it before. I still don't understand why private entities are not being able to do that. I understand the investment is high, but if the investment's coming from the federal government ...," Simmons said.

Rowe said the federal government has tried giving funds directly to private entities before, but it has not worked.

County Judge Debi Hays wondered why existing government programs couldn't be used to help people pay for Internet.

©2022 the Odessa American, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.