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High-speed internet coming to West Texas border towns thanks to funding from infrastructure law

Funding from a $1 trillion infrastructure law that Congress approved last year, a key part of President Biden’s agenda, is being used to bring fiber internet connectivity to rural communities in Texas and across the U.S.

By Travis Bubenik

In rural West Texas, some of the state’s most isolated communities are set to receive modernized high-speed internet thanks to funding from a sweeping infrastructure law that Congress approved last year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced late last month that local internet provider Big Bend Telephone was awarded more than $24 million in grant funding through the infrastructure law to bring fiber internet connectivity to rural parts of Presidio and Terrell Counties for the first time.

According to the company, the project will involve building more than 300 miles of fiber infrastructure that will bring high-speed internet to 312 locations in and around the remote border communities of Candelaria, Ruidosa, Redford, Shafter and Dryden. Federal officials have s aid the upgrades will serve “socially vulnerable communities” in Presidio County and will bring modernized internet connections to a total of 98 people, one business and five farms in the region.

Rusty Moore, the CEO of Big Bend Telephone, described the funding as a “game changer” for the region that could greatly improve quality of life in these remote communities.

“I think about the benefits of telemedicine, and how telehealth is expanding, education, the opportunities for economic development,” he said. “All of that is stifled with the absence of technology.”

The funding for the West Texas project comes from the Agriculture Department’s latest $502 million allocation for broadband internet expansion under an effort known as the ReC o nnect Program. That program was made possible by $2 billion earmarked for rural broadband expansion as part of the broader $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed into law in November of 2021.

Big Bend Telephone was the only company in the Big Bend region to be awarded a grant as part of the latest funding round, though more than $20 million was a warded for similar projects in other parts of West Texas closer to Abilene.

In an interview, Moore said that expanding fiber internet to towns like Candelaria would not be possible without this type of grant funding.

“The market case is not there, the economics are simply not there,” he said. “You’ve got extremely high costs, you’ve got a low population density, so these programs are really designed for rural areas that have failed the market.”

Moore said the grant funding will only cover the company’s costs for building out new fiber networks in specific areas, not the costs to maintain or improve those networks in the future.

Big Bend Telephone has said it plans to build out the new fiber networks over the next five years.

Along with the grant funded project, Moore said his company plans to spend more of its own capital on improving internet speeds in the region, something he described as essential to attracting new businesses to the region.

“That’s the first thing people want to know is, ‘What kind of connectivity do we have here for us to set up our operations?’” he said.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.