Thru and Ector County Independent School District: Partnering to Close the Broadband Connectivity Gap
The lack of reliable internet access across the county meant that over 40% of students were immediately cut off from learning. Superintendent Scott Muri turned to broadband providers and infrastructure experts looking for potential answers, but none offered a plan that could overcome the circumstances in this rural community.
When the pandemic first forced schools to shutter their doors and shift to virtual instruction, Ector County Independent School District (ECISD) - a rural county in west Texas with just over 30,000 students - faced an urgent crisis.
Ector County Independent School District
Solution Scenarios + Roadmap
Broadband connectivity is a complicated problem, yet a very solvable one. Superintendent Muri was determined to find a way to get all students and families connected to high-speed, reliable broadband internet.
He recognized that they needed a partner who could help understand the full scope of the challenge and turned to Thru to help understand possible solutions, including non-traditional ones, to forge a productive path forward.
The critical first step of solving any problem is understanding the scope, relevant variables, and underlying causes. The Thru team started by creating a connectivity landscape - leveraging GIS software and survey responses to map out where families without broadband access were located.
ECISD students (red dots) in areas without access to fixed services at speeds of 100Mbps or better.
Sources: Census Tract data, PSC Analytics & FCC data, Connected Nation
ECISD students who never or rarely have reliable internet access (by TEA tier).
Source: ECISD Teacher Survey (May 2020)
The Thru team also reached out to community members to understand current resources and expand the network of interested and influential stakeholders who wanted to be a part of the solution. This group ultimately formed the ConnEctor Task Force to look at bright spots across the country to see how other communities were solving similar broadband issues and to analyze whether any of those ideas could be a good fit for Ector County
This project put a spotlight on the deep need for broadband access in Ector County and created momentum for expanding access to the entire community.
The Thru team cultivated a group of champions who were willing to tap into their networks of resources and connections in order to find a way to get Ector County connected to high-speed broadband. This collective problem-solving approach encouraged stakeholders to think beyond traditional broadband solutions and consider innovative approaches that would not be constrained by Ector County’s rural geography. Ector County is now one of four communities included in a comprehensive plan through the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas to find cost-effective, long-term solutions to close the digital divide.
There were no easy or obvious solutions that could meet the immediate needs of students and families. Serendipitously, SpaceX had just begun launching satellites in order to begin their Starlink high-speed broadband service and were looking for potential customers to test their service.
Led by the Thru team, we started collaboratively designing an implementation plan that would address the current challenges and landscape and supported the District with securing $300,000 in grants to fund a SpaceX pilot. ECISD was officially the first customer of the Starlink service. Installation kits were rapidly delivered to households to start set up, and within 30 minutes installation families had access to some of the highest consumer-available broadband speeds.
This program has had a transformational effect on the day-to-day lives of participating families. Beyond providing a connection to the school, these families now have access to educational resources and materials, healthcare, social services, economic opportunities, and ways to connect with friends and family.
Students and their families finally have equitable access to vital resources and opportunities not previously available to them.