LAS MILPAS, RGV – Pharr Southwest Early College High School student Angel Martinez is taking dual credit courses in algebra, biology and Texas government.
Though a confident and driven student, he feels he would be doing better if he was able to do his homework assignments in the comfort of his own home, rather than at a local park. But, sometimes his parents cannot afford to pay for WiFI for their home and Jones Box Park in Las Milpas is the nearest place that has high-speed Internet.
“There are times when we do not have the Internet at home to do the college classes and I have to ask my mom if she can take me to Jones Box Park,” Martinez explained.
“There are a lot of things going on at the park. A lot of people running, working out, kids playing on the playground. It is kind of hard for me to focus from time to time. I would much rather be in a library or a home.”
Martinez said the journey to Pharr’s main library in the north of the city is too far away when his parent’s car is acting up.
“Jones Box Park is the nearest place I can go for the Internet. I would love to do my homework at home. When I do it at home I feel comfortable. I feel I am doing the best I can.”
Martinez’s story is not unique in the Rio Grande Valley. Many teachers say their students have to do their homework in a Whataburger or a McDonald’s because parents cannot Internet at home.
Municipal and economic development leaders in the Valley want to do something about this. They realize that closing the digital divide leads to better educational opportunities and more interest from companies looking to invest in the region.
Two examples of how the digital divide issue is rising to the top of the Valley’s legislative agenda have come in the last couple of weeks. Firstly, at a roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and held at Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling voiced his concerns about the digital divide.
“I knew the other mayors were going to talk about border security and they did a great job. But I wanted to bring up the digital divide,” Darling said, a few days after the roundtable discussion.
“With WiFi developments and some of the things happening at the state level, I wanted to make sure our senators understand that with all the rhetoric of the companies, we don’t feel that WiFi is going to go to the poorer parts of the town, to the people with no access. They don’t have 1G, why would we think they are going to put 1G there?”
Darling said the roundtable discussion was a “good opportunity to enlighten the senators,” especially as Sen. Cruz sits on the Federal Communications Commission oversight committee.
“This is not just an important issue for McAllen. It is happening all across the country. The digital divide is getting greater in the poorer communities and every city in the United States. It is really important,” Darling said.
“As a city, we have tried to address if for almost four years now. The kids get free computers from their school but they cannot use them at home. It has been a difficult process. Pharr was successful with its pilot program but it was 50 homes. We really need to get it done now while it has people’s attention because later, underserved areas are not going to get any attention.”
Darling ended his interview by saying: “All students should have the same advantage. when it comes to WiFi access.”
RGV Day at the Capitol
The other example of how the digital divide issue is gaining traction in the region came at a strategy meeting for RGV Day at the Capitol, an event hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership that will take place on Feb. 5.
Valley leaders met in the boardroom of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco on Tuesday to discuss which topics should be on the Valley’s agenda for the state Capitol visit.
Among the topics discussed were transportation, UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, infrastructure, and access to healthcare. Another item discussed was the Valley’s digital divide.
Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian will bring more viewpoints on the digital divide in a later edition.