The Palestine Economic Development Corporation has partnered with Etex Communications to bring fiber broadband to Palestine and Anderson County. The PEDC has identified broadband as a key economic development issue and has been working to study current internet access and create a plan for improving it.
To get the project moving, the PEDC Board, with city council approval, took the first step in the process. It has committed financial assistance of $1.1 million, for a portion of the cost of construction to pull fiber, on Etex’s network, from Jacksonville into Palestine.
A symbolic ribbon cutting and dirt turn for the project was held Monday, Jan. 5 in Reagan Park. Those taking part in the ceremony were City Manager Teresa Herrera, Councilmember Dana Goolsby, Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston, Mayor Steve Presley, PEDC board member Larry Weber, PEDC board member Charles Drain, Councilmember Mitchell Jordan, Councilmember Joe Baxter, CEO Charlie Cano, PEDC Director Lisa Denson, Jeremy Seahorn Engineering Manager, Jacob Smith Construction Crewman, Shane Anderson Plant Technician Engineering and Right of Way, Matt Faggione Business Manager.
“The need for innovation is of utmost importance when making a plan for accessible broadband in rural areas,” said Lisa Denton, Economic Development Director for Palestine. “Legislation that is so badly needed to make it a reality has yet to be put into place. And, while there are some federal and state grant programs, the criteria can oftentimes be challenging for small communities who are trying to not only survive, but grow, in today’s competitive environment. From our understanding, this will be a major topic of discussion during the upcoming legislative session. Even so, our community leaders believe that we cannot sit idly and wait for legislation alone.”
In Anderson County, just 70.9% of residents are using internet services, compared with 76.4% on average. The lower adoption rate can make it even more difficult for broadband providers to come in or sustain.
In March of 2020, Anderson County was selected to take part in a broadband study with Connected Nation Texas.
A survey of 1,648 households confirmed much of what was already known; our area is lacking in affordable, reliable, high speed internet for businesses and residents, both in Palestine and Anderson County.
“Unfortunately, reports can be misleading. The recent summary report indicates higher access to high speed internet, as defined by the Federal Communication Commission, but we have found that in reality many areas do not have the internet speeds that are shown,” Denton said. “For example, the report suggests that 89.9% of households in the county are technically on broadband speeds, but at 25 Mbps download speeds and three Mbps upload speeds, this can make it difficult to do simple things like upload word documents or stream Netflix. This puts remote workers and students, specifically, at a disadvantage over those in more urban communities.”
PEDC is focused on solving the problem.
“When PEDC gathered for a strategic planning session in late July, broadband, specifically fiber, quickly rose to the top of our priorities for this year,” Denton said. “We began meeting with service providers that had shown an interest in our area. Etex Communications became the top contender in our search for a broadband partner. They not only had experience in this arena, but were very open to discussions and thinking outside the box when it came to forming a partnership that would be beneficial for all parties.”
“Etex has been on a mission to improve broadband speeds in our home territory and surrounding areas,” said Charlie Cano, General Manager/CEO of Etex. “It is critical to strike a balance with achieving an acceptable rate of return and providing superior customer support over our competitors. We pride ourselves with being 100% invested in East Texas. This expansion will enable us to showcase our value as a rural service provider and our ability to partner to bring in fast and future safe fiber technology. Our ambition to be the best service provider in East Texas translates to faster internet and industry leading customer service and support which benefits the end user. We answer our customer calls and roll out local technicians to fix any issues. Our customers appreciate the extra effort. Our fiber broadband expansions to rural communities has proven to be a boost to economic development.”
As an economic development strategy, Etex and PEDC are initially focused on bringing broadband to local businesses. This is vital for creating jobs, supporting economic growth and for generating the revenue necessary for expanding broadband into residential communities.
Bringing fiber broadband to Palestine is a lengthy, and costly process with fiber being brought from Jacksonville to Palestine on Etex’s network.
“A substantial investment will be made just to get to the city limits,” Cano said. “We knew the most productive, and financially viable, option was through a public/private partnership where we could share in the risk and reward of this new fiber optic expansion. Getting the commitment from community leaders has been a critical step for ensuring the successful implementation of our plan.”
Sharing in the rewards is possible due to a revenue sharing agreement between Etex and PEDC that will help to reimburse a significant portion of PEDC’s investment.
The goal is for PEDC and Etex to reinvest and expand the network as more customers come on board. This can be done by increasing adoption, more housing units going in and businesses coming to town. Still, according to the survey, 96.4% of residents are interested in having additional internet choices so the prospects are good for Etex, and most importantly, for the City of Palestine.