BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation has become the first economic development corporation in the Rio Grande Valley to make elimination of the digital divide a top policy priority.

GBIC made the move after learning that Brownsville is No. 1 in the nation for cities of its size when it comes to lack of digital connectivity. 

Of U.S. cities of 50,000-plus households, Brownsville ranked as the worst connected city – the least access to fixed broadband, according to the US Census American Community Survey, 2016. 

Mario Lozoya

Indeed, of the 381 metropolitan areas in the U.S., those with the lowest rates of computer ownership and Internet use include three Texas border metro areas: 

Percent with Broadband Access: Laredo 51.8, Brownsville-Harlingen 57.4, McAllen-Edinburg-Mission 55.2. Austin-Round Rock’s percentage is a healthy 82.8.

Mario Lozoya, executive director of GBIC, learned these numbers following conversations with Jordana Barton, senior advisor for community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. 

Via a Skype connection, Barton spoke at a workforce development summit GBIC held at the Brownsville Events Center last Friday. Barton will be visiting Brownsville during the week commencing March 7 for more detailed discussions with GBIC and city leaders.

“You cannot be a smart city if people are not connected. The Internet of Things won’t function,” Barton told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, in a preview of the visit.

Asked to define the Digital Divide, Barton said: “The gap between people who have access to broadband services and know how to use the internet and those who do not have such access or knowledge.”

Jordana Barton

In her remarks via Skype, Barton made the case for border communities to work hard to eliminate the digital divide. 

“It is critical for workforce development. On the demand side, how do we attract industry and fight the brain drain?” Barton said.

“Young people might go off and start entrepreneurial endeavors. They are not able to come back and bring those companies to the border because there is not sufficient fiber optic infrastructure or connectivity to run some of the new kinds of businesses.”

Barton said all kinds of businesses are being impacted by technology. 

“To be efficient, to be effective, to have a global marketplace. All of the things that make a great business. We see in every proposal of a business that comes to a city, they are always looking for both of those things. Do you have fiber optic infrastructure? Do you have the workforce. In every sector, but certainly in some of the sectors you are trying to attract, IT, healthcare, aerospace, all the areas you are working on, requires levels of digital skills.”

Barton said broadband is needed by those seeking access to workforce development programs. “How difficult that is if you do not have access to the Internet?” she asked.

Lozoya said he was unaware until listening to Barton’s presentation via Skype that the Federal Reserve Bank leader had more stumbled across the digital divide problem along the border. Barton explained:

“I was conducting a study of colonias for the Federal Reserve and I was meeting with a lot of groups. It was not one of the questions that I have for people. But it came up in all the focus groups and interviews. I had to see what the data told us. What could I find out about it?

“This led to more work on this subject. The people who were part of that study ended up changing the Community Reinvestment Act, the law that guides financial institutions in investing in low and moderate income communities. We included broadband infrastructure as an area of investment and digital inclusion as part of workforce development and job training that financial institutions could invest in, as well as trying to spur innovation in reaching low and moderate income people with mobile and online banking. 

“That is how I got into it. When I saw the data and the maps of persistent poverty in this country are exactly like the map in the handout of the United States. There are four areas, the Texas border region, some areas of Indian Country, the Mississippi Delta, and Appalachia. I saw there was a direct correlation between income and whether you had access or not.”

Barton said she has a great deal of new data. 

“Most recently I ranked cities of 100,000 or more households, Of those at 50,000-plus, Brownsville was the least connected city of all the cities in the United States. I realized as I looked into this issue that in order to address this structural barrier to upward mobility we were going to have to close the digital divide on the border in order to transform the economy.”

Barton reiterated her point that it was colonia community groups that impacted her work when creating a How To guide to go alongside the Community Reinvestment Act.

“It was the people of the border that really revealed this issue to the Federal Reserve and impact federal law because I was able to tell their story to the board of governors and the inter-agency group that regulates financial institutions. This has been a powerful tool across the country. We are also trying to roll it out along the border to build public-private partnerships for some of this work.”

Lozoya said Barton’s visit to Brownsville cannot come too soon.

“Hopefully, Jordana can share even more data relevant to this item. My hope is we can then put a stakeholder team together, from the city and the county and other players, to sit with her and for us to come up with a plan on how we can work together at that level to mitigate this issue,” Lozoya said.

“I would even propose we put a delegation together to go to Washington, D.C., and say, let us share with you why we think it is important for the federal government and the state government and the local government to work together to mitigate this issue. It is a border-wide issue.”

Lozoya said it is important to have data from recognized experts to show how serious an issue the digital divide is. 

“This is not Mario saying the digital divide is real, it is the data saying it via the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Jordana explained it. The digital divide is structural barrier to upward mobility. It is amazing,” Lozoya said.

“If any household or mom and dad is approving of that, then I am in the wrong place. I know in my heart families in this region do not want to be in that condition. They want to have opportunities for their children to be competitive and to get the jobs of tomorrow. In my opinion, broadband is an incredibly important issue for us to address.”

Barton said she would have liked to have attended the GBIC summit on workforce development. However, she was not able to make it. In preparation, Barton produced a flyer. She said she hoped it would “spur the conversation.” 

Here are some of the key points from the flyer:

The likelihood that a household has a broadband connection varies greatly depending upon its location.

The Homework Gap:

  • 1/3 of households with incomes below $50,000, with school age children, do not have high speed internet access at home (with 40 percent of all families with school-age children).
  • Only 8 percent of households with incomes of $50,000 or more lack broadband at home.

Workforce Development:

  • Digital skills and access to broadband required for accessing jobs and training.
  • 80 percent of jobs are posted online.
  • Job training programs increasingly offered online.
  • Eight in ten middle skill jobs require digital skills (32 percent of labor market demand).
  • Digitally intensive middle skills jobs have grown twice as fast as other middle skills jobs in the past decade (higher wages); now over 80 percent of middle skills jobs require digital skills.
  • Automation, e-commerce, digital divide, digital skills gap, the shrinking middle class and job polarization.

Business Development – Job Creation:

  • Broadband infrastructure and workers who have digital skills (supply side) are necessary to attract business and industry, i.e., jobs (demand side) to underserved communities.
  • Broadband Infrastructure and Digital inclusion: The ecosystem for entrepreneurship.
  • Small business has been responsible for about 65 percent of job gains over the past 25 years (US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017).
  • The key to growing entrepreneurship in the digital economy is to promote the expansion of broadband networks.
  • The intelligence of the network is now on the periphery – with a person and their computer (and a little knowledge of coding).
  • Business platforms, efficiencies, and the expansion of the customer base.

The Digital Divide on the Texas-Mexico Border:

  • Of the U.S. cities of 50,000-plus households, Brownsville ranked as the worst connected city – the least access to fixed broadband (US Census American Community Survey, 2016).
  • Of the 381 metropolitan areas in the U.S., those with the lowest rates of computer ownership and Internet use include three Texas border metro areas.
  • Percent with Broadband Access: Laredo 51.8, Brownsville-Harlingen 57.4, McAllen-Edinburg-Mission 55.2, Austin-Round Rock 82.8.