RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – Earlier this week, AT&T presented 50 refurbished laptops to Rio Grande City students and families.
But, despite the investment, AT&T, along with other internet service providers, has a long, long, way to go before they make a dent in Starr County’s digital divide.
According to Rose Benavidez, president of Starr County Industrial Foundation (SCIF), over 40 percent of Starr County’s 80,000-plus residents do not have or cannot afford connectivity to high-speed internet.
This reporter states an 80,000 population because that is what Starr County Judge Eloy Vera says the true number is. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Starr County’s population is around 66,000. But Vera said there was a “huge” undercount in the 2020 census.
Asked if any entity has studied how bad the digital divide is in her county, SCIF’s Benavidez said: “They are working on a study right now to prove (it) but we know that the numbers are atrocious. It is still a work in progress and we’ve got a lot of partners in the fiber-optic world that are trying to help us solve those issues.”
Benavidez, pictured above, is also chairwoman of South Texas College’s board of trustees. The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service secured a short video interview with her at a news conference held at STC’s Starr County Campus in Rio Grande City.
The news conference was called by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar to announce a $2.8 million grant for STC to boost broadband connectivity. The news conference coincided with AT&T presenting their second-hand computers to families at Starr County Public Library, also in Rio Grande City.
Asked to define “atrocious,” SCIF’s Benavidez said: “I think the last number that we had, we were maybe at not even 40 percent connectivity in the county.”
The extent of Starr County’s digital divide highlighted there importance of Congressman Cuellar’s announcement, Benavidez said:
“So today, what we were able to do was reiterate South Texas College’s commitment into ensuring that the residents of Starr County and the students of South Texas College have the tools and access for opportunities in this ever-changing world full of technology.”
The $2,850,148 million grant announced by Cuellar comes from the Department of Commerce’s Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
Benavidez said the grant will help the students and families of Starr County.
“It is a great start for us to move the efforts of further along. I think we’ve all known how much the global pandemic exposed our lack of connectivity. And so we’re very happy that Congressman Cuellar helped us fund these efforts to ensure that we always have access to top technology and connectivity for our students and residents.”
It was put to Benavidez that the current study into how bad the digital divide is in Starr County was important because a lot more federal funds will soon be available for broadband connectivity.
Benavidez responded: “Absolutely. And we’ve been working with our regional partners and making sure that we’re part of that plan. Because we know where the need is more significant. And we want to make certain that our residents have the same opportunities everybody else has.”
Asked for any wrap-up comments, Benavidez said: “The ability to have this collaboration with our local, state and federal partners is really one of the big successes of South Texas College… (it) is an institution that people believe in and are willing to sacrifice some of their hard earned tax dollars for, to make sure they move the mission of the college forward.”
Evans: $2.8 million Connecting Minority Communities grant is huge for Starr County
To better understand where the $2.8 million will be spent, the Guardian interviewed Marie Evans, STC’s director of educational technology.
Evans said: “We are increasing our fiber optic (broadband) on our Starr and Mid Valley campuses. That’s one of our projects. And we’re also we’re also moving from analog to digital infrastructure at our Starr and our Tech campuses.”
STC’s Technology campus is on Military Highway in south McAllen. The Mid-Valley campus is in Weslaco.
Asked what moving from analog to digital means, Evans said: “All the computers that are five old or more are analog. Now, we’re upgrading them because everything technologically has moved to a digital signal rather than the old analog signal. So that’s what we’re in the process of doing.”
Evans continued: “On top of that, STC’s IT team is doing virtual desktops for the really major software programs, such as those used for architecture. The big CAD programs take up a lot of memory and students can’t really afford to buy that program. So, those programs will be available remotely, and students will be able to access those programs with their own laptops.”
It was put to Evans that this is a huge jump forward.
“Huge. Huge. Big time,” Evans responded. “We are really going to service those students that are in those programs that need access to that software. They won’t have to come to campus. They can access it from anywhere.”
Asked how STC learned about the Department of Commerce’s Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, Evans said: “Dr. Jesus Campos, our dean of library and learning support services is my boss. He brought the grant to our team. The team includes our libraries, our continuous learning for excellence centers, and educational technologies. Dr. Campos teamed up with IT to write this grant. It took all of us to pull it together.”
Evans said she was thrilled that, thanks to the grant, STC’s libraries would be buying hotspots for students to use. In total, 350 hot spots would be purchased, she explained.
“So many of students, such as those in Starr County, live in rural areas. They don’t have access to the internet. They don’t have fiber-to-the-home,” Evans said.
“They either don’t have fiber-to-the-home or they can’t afford it to their home. There’s a map you can check for broadband access in the Rio Grande Valley and it shows you the pockets of dead space. So the hot spots help the students get access.”
Evans explained: “The hotspot has its own cell phone number. So, if a student has access to a cell phone tower, they have access to the internet through the hot spot.”
Asked why there was so much excitement at the news conference, Evans said: “The Starr County campus is so remote. They are so far out there and their students… you know, this is a minority grant. So being able to to provide these services and these products that we’re working on is a big jump for Starr County. A big jump.”
Asked for a wrap-up remarks on the $2.8 million grant Congressman Cuellar was able to secure, Evans said:
“It’s huge. It’s going to… we already had a five-year plan for upgrading our our (broadband) services. This grant is going to let us do it much quicker. We can probably condense our five-year plan down to maybe three. So, we’re able to provide services much quicker.”
Evans added: “We’re really excited about moving forward with the grant. And we’ve already started the processes so we can’t wait to see how it all turns out.”
Editor’s Note: The above news story is the second in a two-part series on broadband connectivity in Starr County. Click here to watch and read Part One.
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