MCALLEN, RGV – The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ research on Texas border colonias found one of the largest digital divides in the country was along the border region.

The Dallas Fed argued that broadband access has become essential infrastructure because “lack of access presents a structural barrier to upward mobility for individuals.”

Without it communities simply cannot compete and succeed, the group argued.

In addition to its report on border colonias, the Dallas Fed issued a report titled Closing the Digital Divide: A Framework for Meeting CRA Obligations. The report said “access to broadband has become essential to make progress in all areas of community development – education and workforce development, health, housing, small business development and access to financial services.” It also stated: “Digital inclusion is economic inclusion.”

Jordana Barton

CRA stands for Community Reinvestment Act.

The report argued that low- and moderate-income people and rural communities are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The author of both reports was Jordana Barton, a senior advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In 2016, Barton and her colleagues at the Dallas Fed worked with the City of Pharr and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD to form a collective impact group, Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley (DO4RGV), with the aim of closing digital divide on the border.

“The first step was a Memorandum of Understanding with key partners for a demonstration project that includes the Dallas Fed, the City of Pharr, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, to develop broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion for the predominantly low- and moderate-income residents of Pharr,” Barton said, in program notes for a stakeholders meeting held Dec. 1 at the Embassy Suites in McAllen.

The program pamphlet was titled “Closing the Digital Divide: An RGV Partnership.”

The pamphlet pointed out that the infrastructure will “additionally help Pharr provide for public safety and will create greater efficiencies for Pharr’s international bridge for trade and business development.”

Its noted that a demonstration project, Pharr LifeNet, “is designed to be replicated across the Rio Grande Valley to create a robust fiber optic network that will transform the economy of the region.”

The project design includes three legs of the stool internet adoption: 1) Infrastructure; 2) Affordability (computers/service); 3) Training and technical assistance (including digital skills training).

In May 2017, there was a public announcement of the project and fixed WiFi and devices for the first 50 families in Las Milpas.

In October 2017, the engineering firm, Colombia Technology Corporation completed the strategic engineering plan and financials for the fiber optic infrastructure in Pharr – an intergovernmental network to serve as the “back haul” for reaching residents in their homes and businesses.

City of Pharr’s efforts to close the Digital Divide

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, MD.

The City of Pharr’s efforts to close the digital divide are featured in the pamphlet.

“In an effort to bridge the digital divide and connect families with internet service directly in their homes, the City of Pharr launched, a pilot project that will deploy free broadband internet service into the homes of selected recipient families in South Pharr,” the pamphlet noted.

“This project is several years in the making and stems from a larger initiative, the Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley, South Texas, that was formed after a 2015 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas about Texas colonias identified a common challenge – residents’ lack of access to the internet. The report found that the digital divide left residents at a disadvantage to access regional labor market opportunities, as well as identified challenges colonia students face in school because of their ‘inability to complete homework assignments due to lack of internet service and computers at home’.”

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez said Pharr leaders are “committed to helping Pharr families succeed, and connectivity in their home will open the doors to numerous opportunities.”

Hernandez said the the pilot project is a specific investment by the city to bridge the digital divide for participating families, and is just the beginning of a larger plan to expand internet connectivity for Pharr residents.

“As mayor of Pharr, my colleagues on the Pharr City Commissioner and I, in coordination with the project partners, are addressing a serious need that many rural communities face – lack of access to internet service,” Hernandez said.

“Pharr took the lead to develop strategic solutions to connect residents and families with the critical infrastructure necessary to access, navigate and succeed in today’s online world. Through this pilot project, we are laying the technology, infrastructure, and network capabilities for make Pharr competitive and innovative, and we are confident that this pilot project will make a case for future funding and expansion to further serve and connect our community.”

The BBVA Compass Foundation was an early supporter of the plan to bridge the digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley, and became the largest corporate sponsor of the strategic plan/feasibility study that led to the PharrLIFE.Net pilot program. Onur Genç, the CEO of BBVA Compass said his bank would make its online financial education program available to the students and parents involved.

“The digital divide affects our communities in profound ways and we know it’s particularly pronounced in the Rio Grande Valley, which is an enormously important market for us,” Genç said. “We’re committed to finding ways to bridge that divide so that we can connect all of our communities to a brighter future.”

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian reporters Steve Taylor and Patricia Martinez conducted an in-depth interview with Jordana Barton about DO4RGV at the conclusion of the Dec. 1 stakeholders meeting. Click here, here, and here to read three stories based on the interview.

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian staff members Patricia Martinez and Dayna Reyes contributed to this series.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Maria del Carmen Llanas, one of the recipients of free internet access through the PharrLIFE.Net program in Pharr. Photo courtesy of BBVA Bank.