BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez has defended his city’s universal access broadband initiative from criticism by some telecom communications companies.

The eagerly-anticipated $70 million project has drawn the ire of Charter Communications, which operates Spectrum, and AT&T. 

“I think the City of Brownsville’s broadband plan is the model partnership. It is a public-private partnership,” Mendez (pictured above) told the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service.

“The City is contributing almost $20 million to build out the middle mile infrastructure. We have partnered with a third party entity that is going to put in about $70 million for the last mile.”

Charter Communications and AT&T argue that as an urban community, Brownsville has good broadband infrastructure thanks to the private sector and therefore does not need to put its own system in place.

Charter Communications made their criticism known via their group vice president for state government affairs, Todd Baxter, at a recent event with Gov. Greg Abbott. 

AT&T made their criticism known via their vice president for external affairs, J.D. Salinas. 

In a news release, AT&T said “some local officials in the RGV are pushing to spend federal funds to build government-owned networks that would connect only public and government buildings – not households.”

Asked which local officials AT&T were referring to, Salinas told the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service: “Government-owned options for middle mile networks have been discussed in Brownsville and Pharr.”

Salinas added: “What’s important to know is patching together a network with multiple providers presents operational risk, cybersecurity risk, and continuity issues. AT&T is committed to building, operating, maintaining and upgrading our networks so that our customers have high quality and secure experiences. We cannot maintain that standard of excellence when utilizing a middle mile network maintained by another provider. Quality and security may be compromised when a network is pieced together in a middle mile scenario.”

Asked to respond to Salinas’ comments, Mayor Mendez said: “AT&T had their chance. Spectrum had their chance. All they did was try to prevent us from connecting ourselves as a community. We did not find they were willing to come to the table with any sort of solution. It was more about trying to convince us that everything was okay when obviously it was not. So, we are moving forward.”

Mendez said he is hopeful that a number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will partner with the City of Brownsville at some point. 

“But for now we have got to look at what is best for our community. Historically, we have had to do it on our own and we are going to do it on our own again,” Mendez said. 

Mendez gave his interview to the Guardian following a Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council board meeting in Weslaco. The subject of broadband connectivity came up when LRGVDC Executive Director Manuel Cruz told the board that the State of Texas’ statewide broadband plan has just been published. 

Asked if he had seen the statewide broadband plan, Mendez said: “No I have not. But, quite honestly, the City of Brownsville is a couple of years ahead of the state when it comes to broadband connectivity. So, we are just going to keep moving the way we are moving and hopefully we will be breaking ground in a few months.”

Asked how the rollout is going, Mendez said: “We are really happy with the progress, really happy with the work we have done. As I said, it is a model partnership. We are getting a lot of attention. I get a lot of speaking requests across the country for what we are doing. It is because we are going from one of the least connected to a model for connectivity. And we did it on our own.”

It was put to Mendez that telecom giants like Charter Communications and AT&T have a lot of lobbyists that try to influence state policy. Asked if he was concerned that they could derail the City of Brownsville’s project, Mendez said:

“We certainly hope not because that would be very much against the greater good and what needs to be done. I think the end goal here is just for our residents to be connected by whatever means possible. And I would think that any sort of obstruction by any service provider or any company now that may be self-interested would be extremely detrimental to our community, to our growth and to our economic development.”

Mendez said there is at least one other city in Texas (Dayton) that took it upon itself to move forward with a broadband initiative. He said it has been very successful. 

“It is self-sustaining, it is producing revenue. What we are going to do is to a larger scale but they certainly served as a model for us to show that it could be done. And show that a city, working on its own initiative, for the best interests of its residents and community could accomplish it. Certainly, that was our model and our goal,” Mendez said.

“We have gotten there so far and really, hopefully, we do not see any interference from anybody because, as I said, it would be detrimental, disappointing and really against the public interest. I just think that if the ISPs have not been willing to do it, they just need to get out of the way and try to focus on other communities where they can find partnerships and maybe achieve that goal.”

Monica Tellam, the City of Brownsville’s communications and marketing director, provided the Guardian with the dollar amounts for its universal access broadband initiative.

“We have $19.5 from ARPA for the middle mile and a partner, LIT Communities, which will bring in private funding for the rest of the project – construction of last mile network – which is $50 million. The project total is $70 million,” Tellam said. 

AT&T’s stance on the Brownsville project

The criticism of Brownsville’s plan by AT&T’s Salinas came after his company sent out a news release. The news release read:

“A recent survey of voters in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties shows overwhelming support for using public-private partnerships to expand the Valley’s internet infrastructure.

J.D. Salinas

This information comes as some local officials in the RGV are pushing to spend federal funds to build government-owned networks that would connect only public and government buildings — not households. 

Voters simply don’t support this option.”

In the news release, Salinas said: “Sixty six of respondents support partnership between the local city or county government and a private sector internet service provider to build a network to provide high-speed internet service to local residents. Only 19% support local city or county government using federal dollars to build, own, operate and maintain a middle-mile network that provides high-speed internet service only to government buildings like City Hall, but not to local residents.”

The news release says that according to the survey, support for the partnership option is widespread, including 68% of Hidalgo County voters, and 64% Cameron County voters.

“Further, after respondents learned more about it, 71% prefer a public-private partnership while 16% opt for the government attempting to own, operate and maintain its own network,” the news release stated.

“Respondents overwhelmingly side with the partnership option upon learning each of the following: The local government is considering building a network that only connects public and government buildings and would not connect a single resident or business; Networks owned by local governments often fail due to lack of expertise and money, leaving taxpayers responsible for millions of dollars of debt; Private sector internet service providers that have the technical expertise can partner with your local government to build the network residents need without any cost or risk to taxpayers.”

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