EDINBURG, Texas – Hidalgo County announced the launch of their public Wi-Fi project that will provide free internet access to underserved communities in the county.
Allocating close to $16 million of CARES Act funding, the county identified over 30 locations from which to beam Wi-Fi signals. They collaborated with cities and schools to optimize student use in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which only amplified the region’s critical digital divide.
“One of the biggest tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it has affected our children, especially those in school,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez. “Families that live in some areas were especially hit hard with the lack of connectivity.”
The project has helped 24,000 students connect to the internet so far. The county hopes to expand it and build more infrastructure as funding becomes available.
“This is a grand opportunity for education access,” said Ellie Torres, Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 4. “This will also help bridge the challenges faced by public, private and post-secondary students across our county.”
Wynn Rosser, president and CEO of T.L.L. Temple Foundation and founding member of the Texas Rural Funders, says that he applauds any efforts by municipalities and community groups to get their residents connected to the internet, especially in rural areas where 49 percent of Texas school districts lie. He says that reliable, high-speed internet such as broadband is crucial for their success.
“Broadband is one element of a thriving community,” said Rosser. “It was the case before the pandemic; it’s certainly the case now. There’s widespread understanding that you can’t access 21st century services without 21st century infrastructure.”
The Federal Communications Commission benchmark for broadband is speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and three Mbps for uploads. According to their household guide, running two devices at the same time for “moderate use” like multiparty video conferencing (e.g., Zoom and Google Classrooms) requires broadband speeds.
For rural communities, the lack of infrastructure is the biggest barrier to getting people connected. Rosser says that as technology advanced, setting up a broadband network became very costly. For a state the size of Texas, that burden is only compounded. Consequently, providers have favored investing in more populated areas.
“The technology has accelerated faster than our infrastructure,” said Rosser. “So, there was a time early on where access to the internet – all you needed was a telephone connection and a dial up [modem], … and then moving from that, it was DSL [digital subscriber line] and the copper line that DSL was using. But now we’re in this era where it’s fiber, and so little fiber has been laid in rural areas. It’s expensive. Providers look at an ROI [return on investment] calculation – are there enough houses there for us to justify the expense? Are there enough users there that will subscribe to an account so that we can cover our costs? – … And so, largely, it’s an equity issue. It’s a financial calculation, and we haven’t invested in the rural places.”
On the short end of that calculation is the Rio Grande Valley. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, the U.S. percentage of households with broadband subscriptions was 82.7%. For Texas, that number was 81.9%. Well below those figures were Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy counties at 68.4%, 57.5%, 56.1% and 60.2% respectively.
Rosser says leaving infrastructure decisions solely in the hands of the private sector will not correct the imbalance. He points to his own situation in rural East Texas where there is only one internet provider and customers rarely experience broadband speeds.
“You know, you look at the circumstances and say the market has not solved the problem,” said Rosser.
Jennifer Harris, Connected Nation’s state program director for Texas, agrees. She believes that public entities and private providers should collaborate to bring broadband to the farthest reaches of the state. She cites that 96 percent of Texans have access to minimum broadband speeds, but the remaining 4 percent – close to one million people – do not. And, of those without access, 88 percent live in rural parts of the state.
“We do have to realize that broadband is not regulated – it’s a private good – and that only gets us so far,” said Harris. “So, when we can work on public-private partnerships and really helping build demand cases in communities … I think that goes a really long way in helping to support our providers to provide that service for more Texans and for more Americans. So, I do think a partnership is absolutely needed, and I think that’s what’s going to help us to ultimately get everyone connected in the way that we want them to be.”
Harris and Rosser also advocate for a state broadband plan. Texas is one of only six states that does not have one, putting it at a disadvantage when seeking federal dollars and at a loss when dispersing them.
“It puts us at a disadvantage for competitive federal funds because the federal funds give you points for a set plan,” said Rosser. “ … And second, let’s say we got some dollars through the stimulus package, what if we immediately knew how to deploy those dollars to bring broadband to areas of the state where it’s not currently available? We spent a billion dollars on disposable devices and hotspots back in the spring and summer that don’t really solve the problem of connectivity for rural students.”
He added, “When there’s such a reliance on private philanthropy as opposed to state investment, it does pull out that all regions don’t necessarily have the same resonant financial resources.”
Two bills that aim to set up a state broadband plan have been introduced this legislative session – HB-5 in the Texas House of Representatives and SB-5 in the Texas Senate. Last week, public hearings were held for both bills and both were left in their respective committees for further discussion. As heads of nonprofits, neither Harris nor Rosser could comment on the bills, but say a state broadband plan is a huge step in the right direction. Harris added that both bills have elements of Connected Nation’s four best practices for getting people connected: establishing a state broadband plan, a state broadband office, a state grant program and a data collection and mapping program.
Whatever the outcome in the legislature, Rosser and Harris say that is just one piece of the puzzle. Digital literacy, or how people understand and use technology, is another hurdle for unconnected communities.
“One of the big things that’s really driving the digital divide in Texas is the fact that in a lot of places that we do have physical infrastructure, people are still not choosing to use it,” said Harris.
This holds true for the Rio Grande Valley. In their 2018 Worst Connected Cities list, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance listed Brownsville and Pharr as the top two worst connected cities in the country with a population of over 65,000. For Brownsville, 47.1% of households do not have broadband of any type, and in Pharr that number is 46.2%. As two major hubs of economic activity for the region, a more-connected populace would be expected.
Harris concedes that cost is a factor, but says that for some regions of Texas, apathetic attitudes toward the latest technologies is also part of the disparity. Even among those who can afford a broadband connection and have the physical infrastructure available to them, there are many who view it as unnecessary.
“Broadband can really transfer communities from an education perspective, a health care perspective and an economic development perspective,” said Harris. “But we do have some communities and some residents in Texas that just don’t see the value currently in broadband.”
Rosser says that digital literacy is essential in changing these attitudes. He says that local leaders cannot assume that their constituents already know how best to use the tools and apply the technology that the internet offers. He used the establishment of the Rural Electrification Administration and its touring advisers as an example of demonstrating the potential of a new technology to a skeptical populace.
“There was not a lot of understanding early on with rural electrification about the economic benefit of electrifying,” said Rosser. “… And so, not to be pejorative, but we’re not talking about social media and simple online shopping, we’re talking about how do you help communities unlock the potential of 21st century technology for economic opportunity, economic development, health care, education.”
From doctors hosting telehealth appointments to students joining digital classrooms, the need for broadband across the Valley this past year has never been more apparent. Harris and Rosser say that more coordinated planning actions like those taken by Hidalgo County, and even Brownsville, will help turn the tide for their communities. If and when a state broadband plan is implemented, by already laying the groundwork of identifying where the need is and agreeing on the physical assets in area, the Valley will be prepared to receive their fair share of funding.
“I think all of this has come to a point where we just can’t ignore it anymore,” said Harris. “Our organization has been advocating for broadband … but really we’ve seen over the past year that our messaging has changed. We’re not having to explain to folks anymore why broadband is important. Everyone understands that now, and so it’s a really exciting time that I think we really are going to be able to make some big changes in the near future, both at the state level and through the federal government. I think we’re going to see more dollars put toward broadband than we’ve ever seen before.”
By addressing the digital divide, Cortez says a “bright moment” has emerged from a “dark period in Hidalgo County.” As more efforts are underway, the light will hopefully shine that much brighter.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Hidalgo County Commissioner Ellie Torres.
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