BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas plans to host a Digital Inclusion Summit in the Rio Grande Valley in early 2018.

The event will be co-hosted by a collective impact group the Dallas Fed helped set up in the Valley to address the region’s digital divide. Among those included in the group are the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Texas Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, 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, and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance

Details about the Digital Inclusion Summit were provided by Jordana Barton, senior advisor for community development in the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Fed, in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian.

Jordana Barton

“One of the things we are going to be asking cities to do is make a digital inclusion plan. We are going to try to hold, in early 2018, a digital inclusion summit, so that all the communities can come together to learn about what we are doing in Pharr and what the plan is for the whole region,” Barton said.

“We did a digital inclusion summit in San Antonio, where we are helping the city write its digital inclusion plan. We formed a group called the digital inclusion alliance with all the different players that have a role in this, from Youth Code Jam that does training for youth in coding and helping them with understanding technology, to local universities, to the public housing authority that wants to build its own network so all its people can be connected.”

Barton pointed out 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. She said the three legs to the stool to eliminate the digital divided are broadband access, computers and internet service, and training and technical assistance.

“The Rio Grande Valley has one of the greatest digital divides in the country. We learned the details of that during the Colonias Study the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas undertook. We learned personal stories of kids not being able to do their homework and not being able to participate in workforce development programs. Yet, we have all this innovation in technology and fiber-optics,” Barton said.

“We are working on the three legs of the stool, broadband infrastructure, what infrastructure do we have, and what do we need to build, do you need to deploy new broadband, do we need to expand broadband. If you do not have that you are not going anywhere. You can pass out computers to kids at school, if they do not have connectivity they cannot work at home. Second is computers and service, the third is training. We have learned best practices. We want this to be long-term, sustainable.”

Barton explained by the Digital Inclusion Summit will be important to the Valley.

“The Digital Inclusion Summit is so important because it brings people to the table and they say, ah, that is the role my non-profit can play, or that is the role my company can play, to get to the goal we want, to work together as a region to build this robust fiber optic network, that will transform the economy of the region, as well as people’s lives,” Barton said.

“We are following best practices and I am also working on a local guide to broadband connectivity that documents what we have learned and what we know from the demonstration project. All of this information is going to be available to people. They will be able to work with their local government. The mayors are going to be very critical here. Mayor Hernandez in Pharr is an incredible visionary. How do we help to make his vision a reality? Likewise, the superintendent of PSJA. There are brilliant people all over the Valley.”

Demonstration Project

The demonstration project has involved providing computers and internet connectivity for students and their families in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD area. PSJA ISD, the City of Pharr, and UT-Rio Grande Valley have been involved. Barton said the project has been very successful.

“In next couple of weeks, we are going to have the strategic engineering study completed. What you get with that is the engineering plan. It is basically a back-haul network that makes the last mile possible. It makes things more affordable because you have done the investment. Now we will get that. It will have investment grade financials and everything you need to go forward with it as a plan,” Barton said.

“Now, different internet service providers are coming in and saying, we want to do the last mile. That is a good thing.”

Barton explained the Dallas Fed’s role in the project.

“At the Federal Reserve, what we do is convene and bring best practices, and we bring people, and the resources we have in our social networks, to the table. Information that people need. From a colonias study did a few years ago, we learned what they wanted, which was broadband connectivity. This led to our demonstration project. So, we are very much in the middle of it. We needed to discover what the answer was. It was a process. Working collectively, it has been awesome. That is what makes it sustainable and doable. But, it takes time. You have to do all of the best practices.”

Barton said the Dallas Fed and collective impact group are also providing some short-term solutions to the digital divide.

“We are doing some Wi-Fi solutions for neighborhoods where they get free Internet at home at high speeds, broadband speed. We are going to build this network and set the timeline too but we are also looking at other solutions and using the best of technology that we can, given the assets that are there. So, we, the collective group, are looking at it in many ways.”

Barton said the collective impact group is working on a project that can make a greater impression on the Valley than the current demonstration project in the PSJA area.

“They want to share what has been learned in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and share it across the border region. We are talking to local governments about having a digital inclusion plan as part of their economic development plan. How are you going to include low- and middle-income families? Low-income families are currently being left out because they cannot afford the service and no broadband,” Barton said.

“We brought experts to the table and they decided they want to inter-governmental, fiber-optic network. It is going to be built strategically, building the last mile, getting from the node into the community and into someone’s home.”

Essential Infrastructure

Barton said today, broadband is essential infrastructure now.

“It isn’t just a luxury, if you can get it, if you can afford it. It is like water and electricity. And it adds to the economic development of a region. The example I give is of Cecilia Corral, who started a company called Care Message. She went to PSJA, got her associate’s degree at STC as part of the dual degree program. Then went to Stanford to get her engineering degree. Now she has a multi-million-dollar company. She could operate that company out of here. What is stopping her? We do not have broadband infrastructure,” Barton said.

“How can we change that? How can we keep the brilliant young people from the border here? They can go off to school but do they have an opportunity to come back? All the STEM training, it is great. But we are going to lose them if we do not have the infrastructure for entrepreneurship, for business, the infrastructure they are going to need to implement their brilliant ideas. That is the challenge.”

Barton said a lot of great talent is currently being lost to South Texas.

“You go away, you never come back, we are losing all that talent. It is good to go away to school, for sure, it is part of your development, it is awesome. You want to give kids all kinds of choices, they can stay here for under-grad and go away to grad school. There are a lot of options you want to open up to them. But you do want to attract them back to deal with some of these incredible challenges we have. They have inquisitive minds, they have the bilingual ability, do we want to lose those assets? This is about creating this infrastructure.”

Big Puzzle

Barton added this about the Digital Inclusion Summit:

“It will be a great opportunity for everybody to come to the table and understand what their role is in addressing the digital divide. From workforce development agencies that can do digital inclusion programs, to youth programs that build skills. They are young, they can do all kinds of things, they can get coding skills or advanced manufacturing skills using technology. It is not just one path. Those who succeed will be those who are adaptable, who are continually learning. All kinds of agencies will come together.

“It is a big puzzle and each community will put its puzzle together and adapt it and make sure they get the goal they want. The goal being, everybody participates because the danger is, if we do not work at the structural level, to close the digital divide, we are going to have greater wealth and income inequality because of the pace of change and the people who are going to be left out. But, we want to create a strong economy, an inclusive economy where everybody can participate. You have to create those entry-ways and broadband, it is not an end, it is a means to an end, the end is people, the end is people being able to create the life they want.

“Instead of being the persistent poverty region, how can we become the persistent prosperity region. The brilliance is here in the youth, in the leadership, organizations like LUPE who know how to reach people, who know how to communicate with people. We have all the pieces of the puzzle. We can transform health here, we are showing with the demonstration, it is not going to be the knowledge. We have the knowledge now. It is going to be the will to do it and our capacity to work with each other. I think we do.”

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

Editor’s Note: The above story is Part Two of a two-part series on the Rio Grande Valley’s digital divide. Click here to read Part One.