A partnership between a North Texas ISP and a digitally minded small-town library has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Emergency Connectivity Fund to connect hundreds of homes and residents. Those involved in the efforts say they hope it can serve as a national example.
Small towns like Pottsboro, Texas, which has a population less than 2,500 residents and lies along the banks of the Red River, aren’t usually known for reliable broadband.
Dianne Connery, who works as the director at Pottsboro’s local library, said visiting Pottsboro is like driving back in time.
“We don’t have a cute little town square or anything like that,” she said.
Connery has lived in Pottsboro since 2010, which is when she said she first saw kids coming into the library who did not know how to use computers.
“They did not have internet at home,” she said about children in the small town, which is located a few miles east of Denison in rural Grayson County, just south of the Oklahoma border.
Connery, who spoke to Broadband Communities with JJ McGrath, the owner and operator of TekWav, a local ISP based in Grayson County, said she became worried that the kids in Pottsboro would not be able to compete on a level playing field beyond high school if nothing was done.
“So, we’re not a traditional library,” she said. “We don’t do summer reading or story times or anything like that. We’re all about digital inclusion.”
A small-town library with a long list of firsts
Connery said Pottsboro’s library became the first in the nation have a dedicated telehealth space. She said the Pottsboro Area Public Library was also the first in the nation to have an e-sports team, which was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Now, in 2023, as money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund has begun to flow downstream from Washington, D.C., Pottsboro’s reputation as an off-network community has continued to change.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Connery said Pottsboro’s lack of connectivity became a pressing issue, which caused the library to apply for Emergency Connectivity Fund relief.
She said McGrath and TekWav were instrumental in helping the community through the process, which led to $550,000 being awarded through the fund for the Pottsboro Area Public Library and TekWav.
“So, JJ Is going to put up some towers around Pottsboro and connect 500 homes to the internet for a minimum of a year, but now it’s looking like may be longer,” she said.
Not all heroes wear capes …
Connery, who said the connections will be installed at no cost to the customer, said McGrath became her hero in the application process.
“He is so locally minded, which I see as a huge, huge benefit,” she said. “He’s not one of the big providers who’s interested in just taking the money and doing the minimum.”
McGrath, who Connery said she met years ago while seeking technical help for a fundraiser for Pottsboro’s volunteer fire department, said the process of applying for funding is not as easy as it seems.
He said Emergency Connectivity Fund money for the Pottsboro Area Public Library should have been a no-brainer, but he said instead it has been a multi-year process.
Regardless, McGrath hoped the efforts of TekWav and the Pottsboro library would pave the way for other ISPs.
“Here’s a true public/private partnership between the library and an ISP working together over a long period of time,” he said. “This is what you can accomplish, and that’s what we hope to really showcase for other people.”
‘This is the journey that we’re learning about’
Texas has been one of the top recipients of Emergency Connectivity Fund money, according to a September announcement from TekWav that was published when the money was awarded.
The size of the fund, which is a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program, amounts to over $7 billion and can cover Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, and connected devices, according to the FCC’s website. The program also allows schools and libraries to receive funding for “commercially available broadband service that provides a fixed or mobile broadband connection for off-campus use by students, school staff or library patrons.”
“In limited instances, a school or library that can demonstrate it has no available service options sufficient to support remote learning may seek funding for the construction of new networks to provide remote learning and the equipment needed for datacasting services,” the FCC’s website for the Emergency Connectivity Fund stated.
With Pottsboro’s money awarded, McGrath said it will now be a “rinse and repeat” operation in other small communities, but he worried that the clock continues to tick on deployments that remain unfinished.
He said lots of time was spent in back-and-forth exchanges with government officials when matters could have been solved with a short conversation.
“But here we are in the last dregs of the tranches to get this money out and we’re probably not going to do it all on time because we’re just running out of time,” he said. “This is the journey that we’re learning about.”
Before the end of 2023, TekWav intends to expand services beyond Pottsboro to other parts of Grayson County, according to the company’s September release.
Pottsboro residents, who must be patrons of the Pottsboro library to participate in the program, can sign up to receive broadband internet through the Emergency Connectivity Fund by visiting TekWav’s website, which has a page dedicated for the residents of Pottsboro.
According to TekWav’s website, eligible residents in Pottsboro who apply will get “a one-time $199 credit to cover the cost of the service activation. Additionally, a monthly credit of $75 will be applied” to cover the cost of TekWav’s essential internet service plan.
Internet service covered through the Emergency Connectivity Fund program will be available for up to 500 connections in Pottsboro until August 2024, TekWav’s website stated.
When the Emergency Connectivity Fund is completed, TekWav’s website stated the company will send out an email to customers in Pottsboro with options to continue internet service.