BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Just a few short years ago the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service would regularly post stories on Brownsville being among the “least wired” cities in the nation.

The stories were based on the latest data from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The data showed the digital divide was at its widest in Brownsville.

But, times change and today the City of Brownsville is being recognized for its efforts in improving digital equity and accessibility.

In fact, the IDC Government Insights’ 5th annual Smart Cities North America Awards have just been published and Brownsville has been recognized for its much-lauded Connect Brownsville project.

“It is an honor for the city to be named the winner in the category of Digital Equity and Accessibility. For the past couple of years, we have worked hard to bridge the digital divide in the City of Brownsville and address problems in the city via digital solutions,” said Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez. “The hard work is starting to pay off and we have the attention of the rest of the County. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Connect Brownsville is Brownsville’s comprehensive plan for a fiber-optic network owned by both public and private partners. It includes last mile fiber to the premise of a city resident. 

Currently, the City of Brownsville is embarking on a 24-month effort to develop its own 93-mile middle mile backbone network utilizing $19.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The project allows for further opportunities to work with private partners such as BTX Fiber to deploy last mile services in priority areas of the community. 

Additionally, the City’s proposed network will connect 32 anchor institutions including city facilities, Police, Fire, EMS, and public parks.  

The IDC Government Insights awards are designed to recognize the progress North American municipalities have made in executing Smart Cities projects, as well as providing a forum for sharing best practices to help accelerate Smart City development in the region.  

Brownsville is one of three cities across the nation to be shortlisted for the top award. Winners will be honored at Smart Cities Connect being held April 4-7, 2022, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio.

Brownsville Deputy City Manager Helen Ramirez will be participating on a panel on Urban Infrastructure and accepting an award on behalf of the city. Here is a Rio Grande Guardian International News Service interview conducted with Ramirez last week about both the award and her city’s efforts to improve digital equity and accessibility.

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In the interview, Ramirez said broadband connectivity is “an important pillar” for the Brownsville City Commission and part of its strategic vision document.

“We were one of the least connected cities in the nation and saying, we are going to take things in our own hands. We receive American Recovery money and what we have done is programed $19.5 million into broadband connectivity for our community because it is an unmet need,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said her city’s commitment to taking a comprehensive approach is shown by the fact that seven other governmental and educational entities joined the Connect Brownsville project. They were Brownsville Public Utility Board, UT-Rio Grande Valley, Texas Southmost College, the Port of Brownsville, Brownsville ISD, Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, and the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation.

“A lot of cities were scrambling during Covid,” Ramirez said. “Luckily, we had started this process in November, 2019, right before Covid hit. We finished the plan during Covid.”

Ramirez said the City of Brownsville has already gone out to bid to “see how we can create a public private partnership.” She said the City will be awarding a contract, possibly before the end of the month. 

“For us there were many underserved areas in the city and we felt it was very important given the digital age we find ourselves in to support all our community members, and all our children and adults,” Ramirez said.

“In the age of… even before Covid to now… it is actually infrastructure that is very much necessary. And so we are being recognized for that.”

Ramirez pointed out the City of Brownsville is one of three finalists for the Smart Cities national award for broadband, digital equity and inclusivity. 

“Just being nominated and being a top three finalist in the nation, to me that is already a testament to where we are going.”

Ruthbea Yesner is vice president of IDC Government Insights and Smart Cities and Communities Strategies. Yesner said winners in the SCNAA illustrate best practice examples of how forward-thinking municipalities are effectively leveraging technology and innovation to offer new services and economic opportunities to meet the needs and expectations of citizens and residents. 

“Now in its fifth year, our annual SCNAA have become a benchmark for how Smart Cities can successfully catalyze the digital transformation of urban ecosystems to produce systemic environmental, financial, and social outcomes,” Yesner said. “Winners represent those forward-thinking municipalities that have implemented emerging technologies in collaboration with the public and ecosystem partners to make cities more livable and offer new services and economic opportunities. We are thrilled to acknowledge this significant achievement.”

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the IDC Government Insights event, visit https://spring.smartcitiesconnect.org/.


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