MCALLEN, RGV – Cities in the Rio Grande Valley might not know it but they have the ability and authority to significantly address the region’s digital divide.

This is the view of Jordana Barton, senior advisor for community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Barton made the case that digital inclusion equals economic inclusion at a McAllen Chamber of Commerce summit on entrepreneurialism.

Barton pointed to statistics from the U.S. Census American Community Survey of 2016 which showed that three metro areas on the South Texas border are among the most digitally-unconnected areas in the nation.

The percentage of residents in Brownsville-Harlingen with broadband access is 57.4, the survey showed. The percentage of residents in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission with broadband access is 55.4. The percentage of residents in Laredo with broadband access is 51.8. Austin-Round Rock has a much healthier 82.8 percent. 

Barton gave the lunchtime speech at the Entrepreneur Summit. Earlier, Jon Roberts, principal and managing director of TIP Strategies, had spoken about disruption in the U.S. economy, most notably caused by technology. In the question and answer period during the lunchtime presentation, Steven asked Barton: “Broadband is compared to highway infrastructure all the time. But we own the roads, by and large, the freeways, but we don’t own broadband. So, how do we influence that?”

Jon Roberts

Barton responded: “The government made a decision early on to own the roads. To be responsible. There is a role for government, like rural electricity. This is a classic market failure. The internet service providers, their underlying assumption has been, if you can afford it, you can get it. That’s the business and we promote business, we believe in business. But there is a problem here now that it (broadband) is an essential infrastructure like water and electricity for a family’s well-being.”

So, what can society do, Barton asked rhetorically.

“At the Federal Reserve level we are saying, okay, what is the answer, what is the best practices, how can we work together. Well, it turns out that local governments have a lot of responsibility and rights to build and invest in their own fiber optic infrastructure, for many reasons. And, they have experts who understand how strategic you can be, how you place your fiber optic infrastructure, that you can become an owner rather than a renter.”

Barton was quick to point out that she was not talking about municipal broadband. She said that oftentimes it is a not a cost effective thing for a city to be a broadband provider. 

“There are many great ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that can do the job. So, where you attract competition, you can lease your fiber to companies and then they can afford it,” Barton said.

“Then, we can use all these incredible technologies, that are happening for the last mile. It does not have to be fiber to the home. That might be cost prohibitive. But, we have these incredible technologies.”

By way of example, Barton referenced Frontera Communications. She said the company is on the forefront for these technologies. 

“So, how do we spur that? It is about partnership. That is when I say technology advances are going to be more human. One of the things we do well as humans, or we can do well as humans, is partnering. Seeing our connectedness across industries, and coming up with a cost effective solution that works for everybody.”

Jordana Barton

Later, the Rio Grande Guardian asked Barton to expand on her comments that cities can do more to eliminate the digital divide. She noted that while the federal government assumed responsibility for developing the interstate highway network, it did not do so for the superhighway.

“It is a different history. The awesome thing about our country is our federal government saw the need for this highway system. And how critical it was going to be to the well-being of the country and the connectivity of the country. We did not approach telecommunications technology in the same way. And, we are still pretty much ruled by the telephone age,” Barton said.

“We cannot go back and say we should have done that. But, what we can do now is work across sectors, government can take a big stand and say, hey, we did rural electricity. We can do more as a federal government, beyond USDA and the Department of Commerce.”

Barton noted that under the Community Investment Act, banks can provide funds to help with broadband infrastructure projects.

“So, we are trying to mobilize with banks to help them see the opportunity for investments in fiber optic infrastructure and why digital inclusion matters; that it is all part of closing the digital divide,” Barton said.

“We are trying to explain how school districts can maximize their use of E-Rate, especially in low-income communities. You could qualify for all of it (fiber optic instillation) getting covered, or most of it and you can build in extra dark fiber. It doesn’t cost very much. Then you can have this robust fiber-optic network.”

Barton encouraged all forms of local government to partner with industry, such as hospitals that need to do tele-medicine.

Barton acknowledged that the rollout of broadband in the United States has been “classic market failure.” She said large swathes of the population are needlessly being left out and left behind.

“So, we need to think of innovative, community, development solutions, and that happens to be public-private partnerships to get this done.”

Asked if cities and counties in the Valley have more power than they realize to eliminate the digital divide, Barton answered affirmatively.

“Yes, they do. People get confused. They think you are talking about municipal-owned broadband. We are not talking about that. We are talking about how you invest in your infrastructure, for everything, from public safety to education. Everything that this impacts, which is all of community development, the eco-system for entrepreneurship, and they (cities and counties) have the rights and responsibilities under the law to do this, to invest in their own infrastructure. That is what we are promoting. To partner, you make it cost-effective for everybody.”

That said, very advanced human skills are also needed, Barton argued.

“You need community development skills to form relationships and partnerships. Some people who read our Digital Divide publication took it and ran with it, and formed relationships with banks. They have gotten huge support.”

Barton cited Oats, a program to help older adults become comfortable with new technology. Based in New York, Oats has expanded to San Antonio. 

“They say it was because of the Community Reinvestment Act and banks supporting them. There are many opportunities here but it is going to take our best skills as human beings and for the Rio Grande Valley to see itself as a region, not as a Brownsville or a McAllen,” Barton said.

“This is a region that is interconnected and our fates are interconnected, whether we become a technology hub and a place as innovation, which our young people are fully capable of. They have the minds for it. It is this bi-cultural ability to be flexible in the way you think and the way you approach things, that is a value, it is an awesome value.”

Drew Lentz’ perspective

Drew Lentz

Drew Lentz, president and founder of Code RGV, also spoke at the McAllen Chamber’s Entrepreneur Summit. With the help of a video, he explained how his non-profit had helped the City of Pharr and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas develop a pilot program to provide 50 low-income families in Las Milpas with WiFi.

Interviewed after his remarks, Lentz said it was hugely disappointing there were no mayors, city commission members or city managers at the entrepreneur summit.

“Let me ask you this, how many city leaders were here today? We have the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas here. We have local entrepreneurs, we have local business owners, we have local people willing to donate equipment. How many mayors showed up? How many city council members or commissioners showed up? How many city managers showed up today?” Lentz asked.

The answer was zero, although the leaders of the McAllen and Mission economic development corporations were present.

“Digital exclusion is an impediment to everything, a better life, more money, better jobs, economic development, bringing in companies. As Alex Meade likes to say, it is about filling your bench. It is about filling your bench so that when a company comes in, you have people that can go work for those companies. Manufacturing companies in the Valley are going to be looking for programmers soon. They are all looking, how can I find people who can program CNC machines? How can I find people that can program mills? How do I find people who, instead of pulling a lever, can write code? Every single manufacture is looking for people like that. And we put together a forum on just this subject and… where are our leaders?”

Lentz said Barton was right, Valley cities and counties can be doing a lot more to address the digital divide.

“One of the reasons we wanted to get involved in this program is to show it is cost-effective and that it was easy, that a local company can put this together. We can service it and maintain it and administrate it. All it takes is someone with a little bit of initiative to say, hey, this is something I want to do. There are very inexpensive ways to get involved, and then there is the extreme other side which is trenching fiber everywhere you can.”

Lentz said the Valley has many smaller communities that could really use the connectivity his non-profit provides. He said he 50 WiFi access points provided by Cambium that he would like to donate to cities in the Valley.

“Smaller locations require less equipment. Maybe it would cost $30,000, $50,000, $100,000. If you look at what that can provide, a city can get that back in sales taxes. Then it becomes an investment in the community, to help citizens have a better education, to truly become part of a global communication and to help develop them into the workforce of tomorrow. Which is what everybody at this conference is saying they need.”

Lentz said Code RGV is working on a WiFi pilot project with the City of Mercedes. Also, the pilot program the non-profit is overseeing in Las Milpas has the potential to grow.

“The City of Pharr wanted to build a public parks safety program; lighting, emergency calls, video surveillance. We said to the city, if we are putting that out there we want to provide WiFi to the community as well. So, based on the work we are already doing in Las Milpas, we can do that and tie the two together,” Lentz said.

“The question was, how we can provide the connectivity to the park without spending a whole lot of money on fiber optics. We said, let’s use the wireless infrastructure to feed it. The city thought that was a great idea. We will have the ability to serve just about any home, within the Pharr city limits, if the funding is there.”

Lentz said that while his non-profit and other tech companies are doing what they can, the Valley is sadly five years behind the times when it comes to digital inclusion.

“This is a place for us to thrive in because we are able to collectively gather all the nerds and we see the opportunity and we are trying to figure out how we can help. There is such a small group of people that are dedicated to technology in the Valley. 

“During the seminar today they talked about people leaving to San Antonio and Austin and Dallas. Jordana and I have a healthy disagreement. When she talks about broadband being the thing that holds everybody together, I don’t think that is true. It is a necessity but the lack of community in the technology space is what drives people to leave. 

“You have people that work in silos, who literally work in their bedrooms. They do not see anybody else so there is nothing to get excited about. Spaces like the McAllen Incubator, Grindstone Co-Working, and the CEED building, those are important because they bring together the people that want to stay in the community and they want to help the community thrive. It is no fun if there is no one else around to share it with.”