When Crystal Macias needed to register her four sons for classes, she couldn’t simply hop online. Instead she had to hop in her car for a half-hour trip from her home in the tiny community of Pleasant Farms to the public library in Odessa, where she could use the free Wi-Fi. As she passed pump jacks and isolated mobile homes along the way, the drive took her from one side of the digital divide to the other.
Macias and her family, along with an estimated nearly one million other Texans, live without reliable high-speed internet because their homes are far from the existing telecommunication infrastructure that could provide it.
For years, residents of rural areas of the Permian Basin, like the Maciases, have used a patchwork of solutions to get online—everything from mobile hot spots to radio-wave and satellite internet services. But those methods have proved less reliable and more expensive than the fiber-optic internet service that’s widely available in the city of Odessa. When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, that lack of connection became a serious problem. As schools moved to remote learning, the Macias boys routinely missed their classes. With slow speeds and not enough bandwidth on the mobile hot spot they shared, there was no way to support multiple family members online at the same time.
Then, in May 2021, the Macias family was offered a solution from outer space. As part of a multiyear pilot program underwritten by local businesses and nonprofits, the Maciases received a satellite dish, mounting equipment, and a router, all of which Ector County ISD purchased from SpaceX—the rocket company owned by Texas billionaire Elon Musk. The equipment gave the Maciases access to SpaceX’s nascent satellite internet service, called Starlink. For the first time, all of the Macias boys could get online after school, and at home, at the same time. “It’s been working great ever since,” Crystal Macias says.
The Starlink rollout wasn’t flawless. Many families didn’t know how to set up the equipment. Others didn’t want to climb onto their own roof and drill holes to install the satellite dishes. Still, school district officials were pleased with the speed and reliability of the service. But even as they looked to Musk’s satellites to bridge their digital divide, Odessa officials found what they believe is a better solution: digging in the earth with help from Joe Biden’s White House.
When Ector County ISD surveyed families during the early days of the pandemic, it found that as many as 20 percent of its 32,000 students rarely or never had internet access at home. With schools temporarily shuttering, that created a crisis. In October 2020, ECISD responded by becoming the first school district in the United States to participate in SpaceX’s Better Than Nothing Beta, a public test for Starlink available to only a handful of customers globally.
The district initially purchased 45 of SpaceX’s Starlink kits for families in Pleasant Farms, paying the full price of $499 each, plus another $100 for mounting hardware. Each family who connected to Starlink received at least one year’s worth of service at $85 a month—again, full price. All of that was paid for using a $300,000 grant to the district from a national nonprofit called Chiefs for Change and by Permian Strategic Partnership, a group of regional energy companies. If the pilot program went well, there was money enough to expand it to others.
But things didn’t go according to plan. For one thing, SpaceX couldn’t connect as many families as the district wanted. (SpaceX did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Starlink’s network works by beaming a broadband signal from thousands (and potentially, one day, tens of thousands) of satellites operating in low-Earth orbit. Those satellites deliver a finite amount of broadband to each area they pass over. The only way to boost it would be to launch more satellites. “We might have two thousand homes that we could connect tomorrow,” says Paul Donovan, a former ExxonMobil executive who came out of retirement to lead broadband projects for Permian Strategic Partnership. “But SpaceX doesn’t have the bandwidth right now.”
Still, by June of this year, the district had connected 121 families to Starlink, and another 80 are expected to be hooked up by year’s end. Nearby Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD announced, in May 2022, a similar Starlink program with plans to connect 260 families.
But making some of those connections may depend on the families themselves. The Macias family, along with many others participating in the ECISD trial, waited months to install the required equipment. “You have to put the dish up outside on the house, and I was scared to get up there,” Crystal Macias says. By the time her husband, who works as a roustabout in the Permian oil patch, got home in the evenings, he was too tired to help install the dish, or it was too dark. Eventually, Crystal contacted the school district, which sent professionals to set up her Starlink.
The district says that once the Starlink service was switched on, it overdelivered on speed. In January 2022, speed tests found download speeds of 350 megabits per second and 30 megabits per second to upload. That’s much faster than the 35 megabits per second that is the top advertised download speed for Viasat, another satellite internet provider in the area. Fiber optic connections can reach far faster speeds, of as much as 1 gigabit per second, but many telecommunications companies offer more limited speeds of 100 megabits—slower than the Starlink connections. Regardless, there isn’t much fiber in the ground in rural Ector County.
For now, anyway. About the same time he announced the investment in Starlink kits, Scott Muri, ECISD’s superintendent, began assembling a 25-person task force to study the local digital divide and recommend long-term solutions. In October 2021, the task force, called ConnEctor, comprising city and local business leaders as well as local university officials and two former Odessa mayors, presented a plan to the city council and county commissioners for delivering high-speed and affordable internet access to nearly everyone in the Odessa area.
The plan didn’t mention Starlink. Instead, the task force proposed a public-private partnership that would build a new fiber-optic network across Odessa and its surrounding communities and lease the fiber lines to private companies, who would connect homes to broadband internet. That’s right out of the playbook of the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” proposal. President Biden’s White House asked that enough money be made available in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill he signed into law in November 2021 to connect every American to reliable and affordable broadband internet service. The White House also suggested that public-private partnerships might be the best way to make that happen.
The ConnEctor task force plans to take the White House at its word and make use of millions of dollars in federal funding. The group wants to hire contractors to lay fiber lines underground and build radio towers that can extend fiber optic signals far out into the Permian Basin. It estimates the cost at as much as $10 million. All of that would be paid for with federal dollars, but those dollars must be distributed by local and statewide entities, including Ector County and the Texas Broadband Development Office.
In June 2022, the task force asked the county commissioners’ court to help unlock funding available from the American Rescue Plan, another relief bill signed into law by Biden in 2021. That funding could be granted at any time in the next few months. If so, it would enable the task force to then tap into the larger $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which allocated at least $100 million to every state for expanding broadband service. Texas officials haven’t yet asked for their share of that money, but it is believed that the state could receive far more than the $100 million minimum allotment.
The ConnEctor task force says that just a slice of that amount will be enough to build a bridge over the digital divide surrounding Odessa. The group wants to build almost all of that bridge out of fiber optic cable. Even so, Muri suggests that high-speed satellite internet, such as Starlink, could remain an option for families in extremely remote areas. That would not include tiny Pleasant Farms, where families like the Maciases have already drilled holes in their roof. That community would be reached directly by the new fiber lines, if the project gets the green light. “Once fiber is installed,” says Kellie Wilks, ECISD’s chief technology officer and a member of the task force, “I would imagine families will switch from Starlink to fiber, especially if it’s fifty dollars a month.”
While bureaucratic obstacles remain, Muri says that if funds are secured, it could take a year and a half to two years to hire contractors to build the infrastructure and begin offering internet service. During that time, Starlink could continue to make a difference in rural homes. “The satellite solution,” says Donovan, who’s also a ConnEctor member, “is something we’ve been able to deliver a little faster than we can with the fiber solution.”
In the meantime, Crystal Macias will still make the thirty-minute drive to Odessa to drop off her boys on school days. This summer, two of her sons will be taking classes, but they won’t have to stay on campus late to download materials for their evening homework, as they used to. Macias says her boys don’t appreciate that their new, fast, at-home internet access comes from space. “I don’t think they really understand,” she says. “They just know they have internet now.”