With internet service lagging in rural areas, new providers are stepping into the arena.
David McCullough’s phone rang. It was Home Town Donuts in Johnson City, and their internet service was down.
He raced through his house to find his laptop, which would allow him to diagnose the issue, but not before cracking four metatarsal bones in his foot.
He couldn’t stop for a broken foot, though, because he and his wife, Ginger, have an internet company to maintain. On the way to the emergency room, they dropped off a wireless hotspot at the doughnut shop.
A few hours later and wearing a protective boot, David climbed the town’s 220-foot-tall water tower to fix a cable that was affecting roughly three dozen customers.
Now, three months later, David’s foot is healed, and they’ve hired two additional employees to help in the field. But the pair still feel the urgency of running Hill Country Wireless, which has become the largest high-speed internet provider in Johnson City, a town of roughly 2,000 people.
More than 80 years ago, the Texas Hill Country struggled to catch up to the rest of the nation when it came to electricity. Now, that same area is slow to access high-speed internet, and the McCulloughs are among a number of rural Texans and advocates trying to fill the gap.
And the couple swears it’s just like operating their former Panhandle cattle ranch.
“It never failed on a Saturday morning — when we thought we were going to get a lot done at the cattle ranch — the tractor had a flat tire or the tractor wouldn’t start,” Ginger recalled over iced tea at Johnson City’s Pecan Street Brewing restaurant. “You don’t call people to come out and fix that kind of stuff. You just do it yourself.”
In 2016, the McCulloughs moved from a small town near Amarillo to Johnson City and quickly found that the town, which sits one hour west of Austin, had limited options for internet access.
David’s background in IT and Ginger’s in customer service helped them launch HC Wireless. Within 18 months, the company became the town’s largest internet provider with nearly 400 customers.
And just like at their cattle ranch, Ginger said, they’re “basically depending on ourselves to get all of this done.”
HC Wireless now has five employees, including Ginger and David, which means that they have an endless supply of stories about rushing to customers’ homes in the middle of the night and even Christmas Eve.
“When we have an issue that arises, it’s all hands on deck to get it fixed because these people rely on it, businesses rely on it,” David said.
Roughly 1.45 million rural Texans do not have access to the internet, according to Connected Nation, a nonprofit that aims to expand access to broadband. A recent report from the Federal Communications Commission found that 31% of rural Texans lack access to high-speed internet, compared to 2.6% in urban areas.
Advocates are looking for a permanent solution, but progress is slow. Texas Rural Funders Collaborative, which aims to expand resources in rural Texas, backed efforts by the state legislature this session, but the group’s Wynn Rosser said it’s just the beginning.
“We have truly systematic issues that are things taken for granted in more urban areas,” said Rosser, who is also the president and CEO of East Texas-based T.L.L. Temple. “Without access to true broadband, fast speeds and broader participation, rural areas are going to be left behind.”
‘They’re just desperate’
David and Ginger didn’t plan to start an internet company when they moved to Johnson City.
But after working in the city’s public library, David realized that residents used the library’s internet to finish homework and do a number of other chores. Limited bandwidth made it nearly impossible to stream videos and quickly download files.
Several companies offer internet service in Johnson City, but residents say they’re often slow and lack quality customer service.
David called different providers but didn’t find many solutions.
“We thought we can solve this problem, so we solved it,” he said. Shortly after creating HC Wireless, the two started receiving calls from nearby small towns like Stonewall and Blanco. “They are in the same boat Johnson City is. They’re just desperate.”
Now, HC Wireless has earned Ginger and David a kind of small town celebrity status in Johnson City.
At Pecan Street Brewing across the street from their office, Jackie Bresie, one of the restaurant’s owners, said David has walked over to fix an internet outage even before they realized they were having issues. Pecan Street Brewing was one of the first businesses in town to use HC Wireless.
“I’ve talked to many businesses and asked them, ‘How’s your internet?’ And it was a joke,” Breslie said. “That’s what appealed to us. (HC Wireless) was somebody who was invested in the community and part of it.”
And at the chamber of commerce, the board of directors paused their meeting to say hello to David and Ginger. The board is made up of HC Wireless customers, who praised the couple’s customer service.
“They’re wonderful, and they didn’t pay me to say that,” Francis Ann Giron, director of the chamber, said with a laugh.
The company’s internet plan costs between $55 a month for 5 Megabits per second and $195 a month for 100 Megabits per second. David and Ginger offer a free basic plan to every nonprofit in town.
The couple initially used their own money and a bank loan to start HC Wireless, and in January, they worked with two angel investors.
The funding also allowed David and Ginger to bring their employee count to five and purchase a work truck.
Once the company became profitable, David and Ginger started Hill Country Towers with the goal of building a tower every quarter to provide internet to more rural Texans. For now, many of their radios sit on top of the Johnson City water tower, which can be seen from around town.
Although they’re growing, David and Ginger don’t have any plans to expand to larger Hill Country cities like Fredericksburg. Instead, they hope to replicate their process in other communities.
“We would love competition, but it’s who we are, it’s who we connect with,” David said. “It’s rural America. It’s rural Texas.”
Lawmakers have been slow to address rural broadband issues. The last legislative session was the first time in roughly 10 years that measures were passed on the matter.
Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, authored Senate Bill 14, which marked the most sweeping measure for rural broadband in years. The bill increased access to broadband internet through Texas electric cooperatives.
The measure allows electric co-ops to use their existing infrastructure to deploy broadband to rural Texans. According to Nichols, who represents parts of rural East Texas, there are more than 300,000 miles of distribution lines that could be tapped for broadband.
Many parts of Nichols district even lack cell service, and the senator said he plans to “wait and see” what progress is made over the next couple years with the support of SB 14.
The legislature also approved a bill that would create a governor’s broadband development council, which will include 17 voting members who research broadband development in underserved areas.
On the federal level, two agencies — the Rural Utilities Service and the Federal Communications Commission — provide funding for rural broadband.
Internet providers like HC Wireless often rely on grants to improve services in rural areas, but the lobbying group Connected Nation says national data must be improved to analyze the scope of broadband issues across the country.
And Rosser said rural areas need more support, but federal lawmakers have been slow to deliver aid.
“You don’t have the presidential leadership on this that you had on those earlier examples of railroads, electricity and highways,” he said. “We don’t have a modern day national leader saying this 21st Century technology is just as important as the things we had in the 20th Century.”
Johnson City is all too familiar with a lack of basic services — the tiny town lagged behind the rest of the country when it came to electricity.
While serving in Congress, former President Lyndon Johnson helped lead the effort to bring electricity to rural areas. Johnson, who grew up in Johnson City, helped start the Pedernales Electric Cooperative to sign up Hill Country residents for electric service.
Johnson also led the effort to improve funding for the cooperative and build nearly 1,800 miles of electric lines, according to Pedernales Electric Cooperative. Johnson City residents see parallels between Johnson’s efforts to bring electricity, and now, local and statewide efforts to improve rural broadband internet.
The Johnson City Chamber of Commerce building is filled to the brim with history of the former president. Giron, director of the chamber, said the similarities between electricity and internet access are not lost on her.
“Basically, what they’ve done is the 21st century version of what (LBJ) did in the ‘40s because he was the person who put together the PEC consortium to bring power, electricity to the Texas Hill Country,” Giron said of Ginger and David. “That’s basically what they’re doing because all of a sudden, now they’re bringing people into the 21st century.”