The West Texas community of Monahans is embarking on a two-year, $2.1 million telecommunications infrastructure project, funded by a combination of public, private and nonprofit sources. It will lay the groundwork – somewhat literally – for wireless broadband and eventually 5G technology (the next generation of wireless internet, fiber-based technology using “small cell” antennas to achieve ultra-high speeds, widespread connectivity and virtually instantaneous response times). And it hopes to revive the economy of “the Center of the Permian Basin.”
When finished, an eight-mile ethernet ring of fiber-optic cable will surround the city’s central business district. Most of it will be installed using existing utility poles, except for an underground section on the city’s east side.
Approximately 1,200 businesses are expected to benefit directly from the project, along with schools, government facilities and Ward County Hospital.
But Monahans hopes the addition of broadband will also attract new businesses to the area to compensate for the energy downturn in the Permian Basin and the COVID-19-induced recession. In 2020, drilling activity in Ward County dropped by more than 80 percent, and the unemployment rate in Monahans exceeded 11 percent.
Teresa Burnett, executive director of the Monahans Chamber of Commerce, explained how her hometown has tried to cope and how broadband access has moved from luxury to necessity for its residents.
In 2015, to reduce its reliance on the Oil Patch, Monahans and many fellow cities adopted a regional economic diversification strategy. Consequently, Monahans is one of three West Texas towns that attracted a hydroponic greenhouse company that grows vegetables. It also boasts a military gear manufacturer as well as mines that supply sand for hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”).
Other prospective commercial endeavors have included specialty agriculture (fruits, nuts, flowers), silicon-based products (made from sand), alternative energy (solar farm), freight, warehousing and distribution.
Then came the double whammy.
“We have really been hit hard in our area with the decline of oil and gas and the COVID pandemic,” Burnett said. “At one time, we had many businesses looking to relocate in Monahans. They were unable to do so due to not enough sufficient internet to run their technology.”
Nevertheless, she pointed out that Monahans has continued building new schools, motels, retail establishments and financial institutions. Moreover, its economic development corporation pursued funding to upgrade its legacy telecommunications infrastructure.
Late last year, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration awarded Monahans $1.5 million through its Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance Program, funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Combined with $600,000 from other sources, the grant will pay for the design and construction of a fiber network providing the foundation for wireless 5G technologies like small cell.
City leaders hope that, when fully functional, the network will enhance their economic expansion efforts and enable new initiatives. For example, underutilized lodging and meeting space could be allocated for research and educational programs. Ecotourism could be enhanced by internet accessibility at Monahans Sandhills State Park, which attracts more than 55,000 visitors annually.
“We are absolutely confident that once we get past this pandemic that our area will continue to grow and meet the needs of our Permian Basin oil and gas industry, along with other planning for the future diversification of our area,” Burnett said. “When this happens, it is crucial to our area to be prepared to offer these valuable businesses the tools they need to operate.”
The fiber cable project’s design phase is underway, with construction due to start in July. Target completion date is June 2022. FN