‘Terlingua time’: Cell phone tower in Terlingua stuck an hour behind

TERLINGUA — Last spring, south Brewster County residents eagerly waited for a pair of new cell phone towers to be activated, only to encounter a strange problem when service went live: devices linked to mobile phones started displaying Mountain time, an hour behind. With spring break 2022 just around the corner, business owners and officials who depend on out-of-towners are trying to find a solution.

“A lot of people think we’re in Mountain time,” said Robert Alvarez, executive director of the Brewster County Tourism Council. “You know how many calls we get to our office? It’s honestly kind of funny, unless you have an appointment. And then if you miss it, you’re really upset.” His organization’s website has a banner warning visitors that their phone clocks will jump around when they visit south Brewster County. Other organizations have followed suit — even Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), hosts of the larger of the two annual chili cookoffs in Terlingua, warned traveling chili lovers of the potential mix-up. 

At first, residents chalked it up to the international roaming confusion that has always plagued the border. The local time in Manuel Benavides and Benito Juárez, two Mexican communities a stone’s throw away from Big Bend National Park, set their clocks to Mountain time. Shawn Barrouk, who helps Lajitas Golf Resort guests book activities like zip lining and horseback rides, always makes sure to explain the situation to new clients: “When we check them in at the front desk, we typically have a sign that’s posted, explaining that [their phones] may be picking up Mexico time.” 

In Terlingua and Study Butte, further inland from the Mexican-owned Telcel towers that dot the landscape closer to Ojinaga, local guiding companies started noticing an uptick in missed appointments in May 2021, around the time that the new towers were activated. “Once that started, we’ve been letting people know on the phone as well as in their confirmation,” explained Crystal Allbright of Desert Sports, a guided tour company and bike shop in Terlingua. 

For longtime locals outside the tourist trade, the time change is a minor annoyance. “There are these things called watches,” said retired National Park Service biologist Betty Alex. “I’m sorry. I’m 72 years old. You know, you just kind of live with it.” Back in 2018, when the community caught wind of the planned construction, the towers were controversial for a different set of reasons. Alex helped organize her neighbors against the “screamingly huge” cell phone towers, and ultimately collected 83 FCC complaints, ranging from protecting viewsheds and dark skies to threatened desert flora and historical sites. 

The original towers were planned to stand 270 feet tall, and FCC regulations require lighting on structures over 200 feet. Alex’s work as a biologist had a lot to do with local plants and the special soil crusts they anchor, and felt that the construction would threaten local biodiversity.  

“I got down to the point of, ‘There’s going to be a tower, but it doesn’t need to have a light on it,’” she said, citing the region’s dark sky ordinances. Her husband Tom, known regionally for his work protecting and preserving local history, echoed her sentiment in his official FCC complaint. “We need new communications towers in south Brewster County, but they should be installed to minimize negative visual impacts and preserve the natural and historical resource values for which this region is attractive to the American public,” he wrote. 

The new towers were constructed to be smaller than originally planned, and to not incorporate lighting that would threaten the region’s protected dark skies. One was placed in Study Butte across from the post office and the other on Moon Hill, behind the Terlingua Ghost Town. Once the towers went live, locals took to Facebook to praise high speed data connections they were suddenly able to enjoy — a far cry from Terlingua’s early days, when the only phone in town was parked in the sun outside the Study Butte store. 

Visitors to Terlingua, on the other hand, don’t always grasp that access to cell data ought to be a cause for celebration. The improperly-configured tower has been a major source of frustration and missed tours. To protect the regional tourism economy, Alvarez has been working to petition AT&T to fix the issue. “It’s like getting Congress to pass a new bill,” he said. He’s been trying to contact someone directly, rather than flexing Brewster County political muscle to address the problem. “The county commissioners are more than happy to do it. We just didn’t want to be the bad guy. So we were trying to figure it out. We just don’t know where to go to contact.”

A spokesman for AT&T issued the following statement: “Our technicians are working quickly to fix the time display for wireless customers in the Terlingua area. We apologize for the inconvenience.” 

Until then, a trip to Terlingua will remain a trip back in time — an hour behind, to be exact.