MCALLEN, Texas – According to two entities that have set up a nonprofit fund for digital equity, the Texas border is a persistent poverty region where large ISPs have under-invested in broadband networks. 

The two entities are Connect Humanity, a nonprofit fund for digital equity, and the City of Pharr. They say digitization has the potential to be an engine for businesses and job creation and point to a 2019 U.S. Chamber of Commerce study that noted that Texas could add up to $3.8 billion to the state GDP per year by closing its rural digital divide. 

Yet, Connect Humanity and the City of Pharr argue, 54 percent of households in the Rio Grande Valley do not have a subscription to fixed broadband service. They cite the 2022 US Census American Community Survey for this statistic. They add that businesses and nonprofits also struggle to connect to a fast broadband service.

In a bid to drive economic growth, Connect Humanity and the City of Pharr have announced plans to launch a $10 million fund to invest in the digitization of businesses in the Rio Grande Valley.

Formed in partnership with the City of Pharr’s TeamPharr.Net, and other local internet service providers (ISPs), VTX1 Companies, BTX Fiber and SmartCom, the Fund will offer a one-year subscription subsidy for high-speed internet, a no-to-low interest loan for hardware and software, and digital skills training to micro- and small-business entrepreneurs, community health clinics and nonprofits serving low- and moderate-income communities across the Lower Rio Grande Valley border region.

“We have the tools we need to transform the Texas Rio Grande Valley from one of this country’s least connected regions into a digital leader,” said Connect Humanity project lead Jordana Barton-Garcia. “This means a stronger economy and more entrepreneurial opportunities. The small business broadband fund offers banks a vehicle to invest in their communities under the CRA, while overturning decades of inequities and equipping communities with the resources to prosper in a digital society.”

Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez agreed. He said: “As city leaders we have committed to taking on the digital divide in our communities, because we know it’s the most powerful way to unlock the many talents and potential people have. This Fund is a necessary next step on our digital journey as we ensure that every student, every neighborhood, and now, every entrepreneur, has the broadband they need to thrive.”

To address the Valley’s digital divide, Connect Humanity has joined with TeamPharr.Net and other partners and plans to begin with a $2 million pilot to connect 50 businesses and organizations in Hidalgo County, one of the lowest-income and least connected counties in the US. 

The project will partner with ISPs to deliver fibre-to-the-premises, provide subsidies for affordable subscriptions, offer low-interest loans to ensure businesses can digitize operations and provide skills training to help them get the most from digital tools. 

The Ford Foundation seeded the fund with $250,000 to catalyze contributions from state and federal broadband grant programs as well as well as other philanthropic and financial institutions. 

Longer term, Connect Humanity aims to raise $10 million from a combination of philanthropic funds, government grants and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) investments to roll out the project across the Texas border region. 

The Fund will also support communities to apply for Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) broadband grants and help with the matching funds that communities need to secure these federal funds. 

Connect Humanity and partners – which include TeamPharr.Net, VTX1 Companies, SmartComm, Region One Education Service Center, ARISE Adelante, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, Hidalgo County, Cameron County, Come Dream Come Build, South Texas College, Fendley and Associates, and Brownstone Consulting – are also working with Rural LISC and the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) to launch a Digital Workforce Development Program called LevelUp RGV to provide training and paid internships to students in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. 

“This initiative has the potential to launch our school systems, businesses and workforce toward unprecedented achievements. It will also attract new investments and spark growth within our region,” said Dr. Daniel P. King, Region One Education Service Center executive director.

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the first in a three-part series on plans to invest $10 million in the digitization of businesses in the Rio Grande Valley.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Jordana Barton-Garcia of Connect Humanity and Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez.

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