When the ConnEctor Task Force study asked local families whether they had internet, one in four said they couldn’t afford it or didn’t have access to it. More than 20% of those who had it said it was of low quality.
A Midland-based internet provider is hoping to help out.
During Tuesday’s Ector County Commissioners Court meeting, Mitchell Block, owner of Net Ops Communication, told commissioners his company would like to use a portion of Ector County’s $32 million of coronavirus relief funds to lay high-speed fiber optic lines in areas of Ector County that don’t have adequate internet capabilities.
If the commissioners agree, Block said his company would, in exchange, offer disadvantaged families a discount on their internet bill and the equipment they need. In some instances, families could receive the internet at no charge at all, he said.
Net Ops is not only reaching out to Ector County, but also to the City of Odessa and the Ector County Independent School District to form a “public-private partnership,” Block said.
Outside the City of Odessa, there is a distinct shortage of internet services and what does exist isn’t very good, Block said after the meeting. When the pandemic struck those issues became even more obvious, especially in households with children forced to participate in distance learning.
He and his company began looking at the possibilities of expanding services in South Odessa, Gardendale, Goldsmith and West Odessa around the start of the pandemic, investing $100,000 in studies, designs and engineering, Block said.
According to their studies, Block told the commissioners there are more than 16,000 households they can provide internet services to in those areas, but that doesn’t include the potential homes and businesses that will be served in the future as the area grows.
Improving internet connectivity in those areas would not only allow more students to participate in distance learning, if necessary, but it would make it possible for people with minor ailments to seek prescriptions or advice from their doctors through telehealth visits and more people to work from home, including stay-at-home moms, Block said. It would also make businesses more competitive with improved communications and new sales markets, he said.
Internet providers haven’t reached outside of the city limits because of the expense in doing so, but with the coronavirus money available, now is the time to do so, Block said.
His company is ahead of the game because they’ve already spent the last two years working on the designs and engineering, Block said. Other companies that haven’t started will be hampered by supply chain and chip shortage issues, he said.
In addition, Net Ops is working with the Odessa Development Corporation so it can hire 20 more full-time employees to maintain the network, Block said. He’ll be appearing before the Odessa City Council next week to talk about his company and the possibility of a private-public partnership.
“We’re ready to go,” Block said after the meeting.
In other business, the commissioners heard a presentation from Griff Gleason, director of client services for Forensic Medical Management, a Tennessee-based company interested in leasing space locally to conduct autopsies for the county.
The county is currently sending remains to Lubbock for autopsies when the person died alone and/or the cause and manner of death are unknown. County Judge Debi Hays said the county is spending $400,000-$500,000 a year for the private company’s services.
Gleason said 133 autopsies were performed for Ector County last year and roughly 400 are conducted in the Permian Basin annually. More than 1,000 are performed in the area if Abilene and other West Texas towns are included.
Creating a forensic center in the area would be highly beneficial, especially since there are so few board-certified forensic pathologists in the United States and there is the possibility Texas Tech’s Health Sciences Center could potentially launch a teaching program, Gleason said.
There are only 500 board-certified forensic pathologists in the U.S. and a recent research article said there’s a need for 1,300-1,400, Gleason said.
Hays noted that if the county were to create a facility, the cost would “come back in the form of a lease,” from Forensic Medical Management.