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How a Rural County in Texas Solved Its Broadband Problem

Bringing fiber infrastructure to rural areas is expensive and time consuming. Wise County, Texas, found a way to deliver high-speed Internet access without wires.

A wireless Internet receiver on the roof of a house.
New technology makes it possible for rooftop receivers in rural areas to deliver Internet connections at speeds comparable to fiber.
In Brief:
  • Four in ten Americans in rural communities don’t have access to broadband Internet.
  • Closing the gap is a priority for federal recovery and infrastructure funds.
  • The cost of bringing fiber to rural areas has been an obstacle. Wise County, Texas, worked around this barrier using wireless technology.

  • A largely rural Texas county has pulled off an out-of-the-box broadband hack to deliver wireless Internet service at speeds that rival fiber-optic cable systems. They’re using a model common in cellphone networks.

    Just over 6 in 10 Americans in rural communities have access to Internet that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) definition of “broadband.” The need to get high-speed service to more of them goes far beyond improving video streaming. There’s evidence, for example, that faster rural household Internet speeds enable the use of technology that leads to higher crop yields and reduces expenses for fertilizer, plants and seeds. For counties near metropolitan areas, broadband is essential for attracting remote workers.

    There hasn’t been much of a business incentive for providers to take on the cost of bringing fiber-optic cable to a limited customer base. But it is one of the priorities for broadband funding in the American Rescue Plan Act. Judge JD Clark in Wise County, Texas, found a way to maximize the impact of his county’s ARPA allocation through a public-private partnership that looked beyond fiber.

    Wise County is 90 percent rural. Its population of about 78,000 is spread over 922 square miles. It’s a lot of territory, with large land tracts. Cities there are small and most people live in unincorporated areas. “It’s not dense housing,” says Clark. “The fiber model and math don’t make sense for us yet.”

    Clark was co-chair of a broadband task force convened by the National Association of Counties (NACo) when it released a report on best practices and policy recommendations in 2021. It included both wireless and wired technology in its definition of digital telecommunications infrastructure.

    The county had $1.3 million in ARPA money for broadband. As Clark looked at what it could accomplish with these funds, he learned that an Internet service provider operating in the county, Nextlink, had obtained licenses to use a portion of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) radio spectrum. It had a technology partner that had developed a way to use CBRS to deliver wireless broadband service that was comparable to cable.

    Technically speaking, CBRS is unlicensed spectrum — a 150 MHz wide broadcast band of the 3.5 GHz band — that can be leveraged for private 5G or private LTE networks.

    Wise County decided to pursue the option, with results that are causing other counties in the state to consider following its lead.

    New Possibilities

    In 2019, the FCC decided to make a portion of the CBRS spectrum available for commercial use. Until then, it had been available only to the Department of Defense.

    CBRS is a high-frequency radio spectrum with range and the ability to convey large amounts of data at high speed. Military users will continue to have priority access to it, but in 2020 the FCC auctioned licenses on a county-by-county basis. Nextlink secured one for Wise County. Others without licenses can use CBRS, but only when military and licensed users are not using it. That will all be managed by a frequency coordination system, but some are unsure what might happen if too many users in the same location crowd things.

    Nextlink brought a partner to the Wise County project, Tarana, that had developed technology that uses the model employed by cellphone networks to deliver wireless service at speeds comparable to those achieved using cable. Boxes on the same kinds of towers where antennas for cellphones are placed deliver connections to antennas on the rooftops of homes.

    Investing a total of $2.6 million, the partners built infrastructure that provides service at download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20 megabits per second — the FCC’s current definition of “broadband” — to more than 99 percent of Wise County. Service up to 500 Mbps is also available. The buildout took seven months.

    Nextlink also provides fiber-optic cable service. Sometimes that is the best option, but the difference in money and time investment can be prohibitive. Claude Aiken, chief strategy officer and legal officer for Nextlink, says a project in a rural Nebraska county designed to bring service to 950 people will cost $17 million and have a timeline of more than two years.

    “The bigger benefit to this fixed wireless technology is that you’re able to get there in the first place,” says Aiken.

    Boxes on towers deliver connections to rooftop antennas.

    Transformational Project

    The project has been “transformational” for households and businesses in the county, Clark says. His mother has gone from 10 Mbps DSL service to 100, at lower cost. He has 500 Mbps service in the rural area where he lives.

    The new Internet infrastructure is an asset for a jurisdiction that is adjacent to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, which led the nation in population growth last year. The lower cost of living in Wise County is a draw for those who work in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
     JD Clark
    Republican JD Clark is in his third term as a county judge in Wise County, Texas. He served as mayor of the county’s town of Chico for five years.
    (Janey Cooper)

    Large housing subdivisions are emerging, and the southeast portion of the county is increasingly suburban. The new broadband service meets the expectations of workers coming from urban areas and gives them the option of working from home.

    “We’ve got a lot of young families that are moving into Wise County,” says Clark. “If this creates an opportunity for them to do more work locally, without getting on the highway and driving to Fort Worth or Dallas, that’s a win for them and a win for the community.”

    Clark also hopes the new service will attract professionals such as architects and engineers, whose work requires fast upload speeds.

    The county’s infrastructure upgrade wasn’t entirely wireless. It included a fiber loop that brought gigabit service to 20 county buildings. That is being extended to neighborhoods and business corridors.

    Not a Cure-All

    Clark continues to be involved with NACo’s broadband task force. He’s also second vice president of NACo, an elected position that puts him in line to become president in 2025 if he remains in county government.

    Other counties in Texas have already reached out to him, but Clark’s NACo associations give him relationships with colleagues nationwide. “We learned a lot and have a lot of lessons to share with other communities that are looking for some of the same options,” he says.

    CBRS isn’t a cure-all. Dense foliage and mountains have interfered with its ability to provide coverage in some places. But it has created possibilities for rural areas that didn’t exist before.

    “I would encourage county leaders to be flexible and reach out and ask about other technologies,” Clark says. “Fiber is great where you have the ability to do it, but in a lot of our more far-flung and rural counties it’s just not really feasible. There are other things out there that can get some great speeds.”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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