BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Jordana Barton, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is pleased to say that a major push to eliminate the digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley came about thanks to colonia residents.

Barton, senior advisor for community development in the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Fed, is lead author of the 2015 Dallas Fed report “Las Colonias in the 21st Century: Progress Along the Texas-Mexico Border.” During her research work, Barton would ask colonia residents about a lack of basic infrastructure, such as water and wastewater services. To her surprise, the colonia residents would tell her what they really wanted was broadband.

“I was talking to them about basic infrastructure, and they were talking to me about not having broadband coverage, of their kids not being able to do their homework at home, of having to get a tia to take the kids back to school at night so they could be outside using the Wi-Fi,” Barton said.

Jordana Barton

Barton gave her remarks at event in Brownsville on Wednesday that the Dallas Fed co-sponsored. It was called Rio Grande Valley Regional Convening. Other sponsors included the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, United Way of Southern Cameron County, RAISE Texas, Prosperity Now, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and UT-Rio Grande Valley. She spoke positively about how the digital divide can be eliminated in the Rio Grande Valley.

Barton said after the Dallas Fed’s colonia report came out she convened a community meeting with groups like La Unión del Pueblo Entero. “Those at the meeting said they wanted to close the digital divide. The question was, how do we do it? It took us a year to do the research and learn what the answer is. There is an answer and we are demonstrating it in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo. We want to build a robust fiber-optic network, not only in Pharr, but the entire Rio Grande Valley. An asset to the community that connects the community.”

Barton said eliminating the digital divide can boost economic development, telemedicine and stop the brain drain.

“We can have all the STEM training programs we want but if we cannot keep our kids here, to start incredible businesses, because there is not broadband. We talk about the brain drain here, that is what we want to stop,” Barton said.

Digital Opportunities for the Rio Grande Valley (DO4RGV)


Brochures from the Dallas Fed were left on the tables at the Regional Convening event for participants to take home. The brochure was titled “Closing the Digital Divide – A Framework for Meeting CRA Obligations.” CRA stands for Community Reinvestment Act. Barton wrote the document. One section was titled: “Digital Opportunities for the Rio Grande Valley (DO4RGV)”

Here is what the section states:

In 2015, the Dallas Fed released a report about Texas colonias – low-income peri-urban and rural informal settlements along the Texas border region – characterized by their lack of basic infrastructure and substandard, often self-built housing. The study involved focus groups with colonia residents. One theme that arose from the conversations with residents was the lack of access to the internet. The report found that the digital divide was a factor preventing residents from accessing regional labor market opportunities.

Additionally, the report described challenges colonia students face in school because of their inability to complete homework assignments due to lack of internet service and computers at home. Of the 381 metropolitan areas in the U.S., those with the lowest rates of internet use by individuals include three Texas metropolitan statistical areas.

In her remarks, Barton pointed to a chart which showed that three of the metropolitan statistical areas in the nation with the greatest digital divide are along the South Texas border region – Laredo, McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, and Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito.

The brochure also stated:

The serious concern about the digital divide in the border region led to the Dallas Fed to convene a collective impact group of Rio Grande Valley community members to discuss the issue and determine possible approaches to solving the problem. The members of the collective group include:

•    Dallas Fed
•    University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
•    Texas Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (TATOA)
•    Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD
•    City of Pharr
•    La Joya ISD
•    Region One Educational Service Center
•    ACT
•    Health & Human Services Commission
•    City of McAllen
•    City of Brownsville
•    Deep South Texas Financial Literacy Alliance
•    Doctors Hospital at Renaissance

Out of the initial meeting, the DO4RGV was formed, and the quest to find the solution began. The colonias report revealed that policy approaches that address issues in silos don’t solve the biggest challenges in the region, and great value is left on the table. As the group discussed how broadband had been approached in the past, members realized that working in silos had led to piecemeal or “band aid” projects that did not get the desired results. The group learned that what was needed was a comprehensive, holistic approach for the region.

With the knowledge that TATOA brought to the table in meetings with local officials, DO4RGV was able to identify the ultimate goal: The creation of a robust fiber-optic regional network that connects the major anchor institutions and provides the infrastructure for companies or co-ops to cost effectively provide last-mile, fiber-to-the-home or Wi-Fi service to Low- and Medium-Income residents. The group began to understand how it could transform the economy of the region.

To start building the network, the group decided to implement a demonstration middle-mile project with the City of Pharr and PSJA ISD focusing on:

Infrastructure. DO4RGV is mobilizing resources and working with local governments, PSJA ISD and the City of Pharr to build and own its own broadband network that will be used as a springboard to incentivize the last mile. The goal is for internet service providers to provide the last-mile services to residents, as Google Fiber announced it would do in Huntsville, Alabama. CTC Technology has been hired to complete the strategic plan/feasibility study for the project.

School District. In fall 2016, more than 100 students and their families from PSJA will be provided with computers, broadband access and bilingual training and technical support as evidence of the impact DO4RGV can achieve for the region.

The purpose the demonstration is to create a successful replicable model to roll out across the Rio Grande Valley. Regional anchor institution, UTRGV has been involved throughout the project and will be an important player in taking the project to scale across the region. In addition, a partnership with UTRGV’s College of Business and Entrepreneurship will provide trained IT students who will work with the students and families at PSJA. Together, the college students and the K-12 students will make up the “Digital Opportunity Corps” who will serve as experts in their communities.

Local banks have stepped up to support the project. BBVA Compass, the bank with the most branches along the U.S.-Mexico border, has provided a grant for the strategic plan/feasibility study. BBVA also offered to make its online financial education program a part of the digital inclusion training for students and parents at PSJA. Additionally, Capital One provided seed money for the demonstration.

Objectives:

•    Improve educational opportunity and results for Pre-K-12 students and their families across the region (close the ‘homework divide’)
•    Improve access to workforce opportunities, including training and job opportunities
•    Improve access to health care providers and telemedicine
•    Improve access to the internet and online marketing for microentrepreneurs in the region
•    Improve access to financial services and online banking
•    Improve financial literacy through access to online training platforms

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Jordana Barton, senior advisor for community development in the San Antonio branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, speaking at the Rio Grande Valley Regional Convening summit, held at UT-Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Patricia Martinez contributed to this story from Brownsville, Texas.

Editor’s Note: The above story is Part One of a two-part series on ways to eliminate the digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley. Part Two will be published in our next edition.