Good afternoon, I am Noel Bernal, City of Brownsville city manager. Some of these comments are mine. Some of them are on behalf of my community. Some of them are on behalf of our elected officials, our mayor. 

So, I made some bullet points but I’ll keep it very quick. 

Brownsville, I would say, is the poster child in the country and certainly in Texas, along with others along the border, in terms of being one of the most disconnected cities in the country. So, Brownsville took a self-reliant approach, pre-pandemic, to invest in itself. 

So, what I would preface anything about broadband with is, be aware of and understand… the through-cost problem of broadband. What it really is, is a market failure. And when market failures occur, typically, government steps in to provide a public good. 

So, imagine the state without TxDOT, imagine the state without having the Texas Water Development Board. Where you provide essential utilities, for highway, water, and wastewater. When you leave it in the hands of the private sector you can get a deregulated environment that we have for electricity. But even electrification has been a problem, historically. We all know about the Appalachia story and Brownsville is another poster child, where, 100 years ago, we also had to invest in ourselves, take our fate into our own hands to address that. 

So, here we are, early part of the 21st century, doing the same with one of the largest (broadband) projects in the state. Here in a couple of months we break ground in a $90 million dollar network. Twenty million in public investments, $70 million in private equity. We have learned a lot more of ourselves that what the federal government understood about us because of misleading and inaccurate FCC mapping, which you (staff of the Texas Comptroller) have alluded to so we won’t go there. But we have also learned a lot about the private sector. We have learned that the private sector did not and does not have any intensions of investing in fiber and broadband in our community. 

So there you go. The same issues would persist if the city had not invested in itself. 

We have also learned that it can be feasible for cities to sensibly and responsibly invest in highly customized solutions for the community. At the end of the day, cities know their issues best. They know their population, they understand their local assets, they have the ability to enable and facilitate and convene local partners. We convened our seven anchor institutions for a feasibility study that led to our now broadband project.

But what I would encourage the State to do is, to seek to optimize the funding by partnering with the public sector. The private sector can have their say at the table but it should not be private sector driven. Because many times they created the problem, they created the chaos and then they are also wanting to be the solution. 

I think we have to be realistic and measure how that partnership should be weighed. What we are able to do now is build a network, a 93-mile universal access network that will be open. So we will encourage competition and we will enable through a franchise fee concept for any private ISL to leverage our middle mile but we will control our destiny in terms of what equity, what accessibility, what affordability, what the customer experience really should mean to our residents. And by maintaining some equity, we will have the ability to leverage and influence that conversation. 

I think that is really, really, important: for us to have that role. In addition, we will be able to build on this middle mile network to build additional smart city applications, such as smart metering, traffic synchronization, and a host of other solutions, through one, single, highly efficient investment, versus a duplicative investment over time. 

So, I would just encourage the state to be that partner, to be that facilitator, to work with cities who, many times when they perform their due diligence and they find quality partners, can find the best solutions. 

There should still be a role for the private sector. It is not an either, or. It should be more of a yes, and. But I think that the cities, having that ability to drive a lot of these partnerships should be highly considered. 

Editor’s Note: The above guest commentary was provided by Noel Bernal, city manager for the City of Brownsville, at a meeting convened by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar. The meeting was part of Hegar’s listening tour of Texas, during which he and his staff take recommendations from various stakeholders in preparation for a new statewide broadband plan. The event took place at the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine in Edinburg. 

Editor’s Note: The above guest commentary is the first in a series of stories and guest columns related to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley to discuss the state’s broadband program. More stories and columns will be posted in our upcoming editions.

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