MCALLEN, RGV – McAllen Economic Development Corporation is placing more emphasis on bridging the digital divide after a call center company not only showed interest in moving to the city but having its workers work from home.

McAllen EDC President Keith Patridge said that while much of the city has sufficient broadband capacity, he is concerned about those areas where high speed internet is lacking. Patridge praised McAllen Mayor Jim Darling for continually bringing up the issue.

“I see great opportunity here. Some people are not holding a job because they do not have a car or they do not have child care. We have an opportunity to get them back in the workforce,” Patridge told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

“I see the promise, but we have to have the service. While McAllen has done a phenomenal job of putting the basic infrastructure in place, we have to figure out how to get that service to the end user. That is hard part.”

Patridge and Darling gave interviews immediately following a McAllen EDC board meeting. At the meeting, Patridge discussed a potential new call center that would hire hundreds of workers coming to McAllen. He said the company is in discussions with McAllen EDC Vice President Janie Cavazos, who handles McAllen EDC’s recruitment of call center and manufacturing companies.

“The mayor has been talking a lot about internet connectivity to make sure we have internet services and high speed internet services available throughout the city. This is really important because one of the companies that Janie is working with is actually looking at a big portion of their employees working from home,” Patridge said.

“This is important to us. We really need to support the mayor in his vision that we have internet connectivity throughout the city. This allows us to reach a segment of our population base that maybe has not been able to get into the workforce either because they are stay at home parents or they do not have transportation or other reasons.

“However, they do have the capability and skills to work at home – assuming they have that internet connectivity. It is important we look at that. This is actually happening. We are now seeing companies in from Day One saying we want a portion of our employees to work from home. They now have the capabilities to know when their employees are working, how many strokes they made on their computer. They have the tools to make sure the workers are as productive at home as they are in the office.”

Patridge pointed to a recent presentation made by economist Ted Jones at the 13th Annual State of Real Estate Forum hosted by Edwards Abstract & Title Company 

“After Ted Jones came down he put out a tweet. The number of people working from home jumped 76 percent since 2005. Median income for those working from home is 28 percent greater than those not working from home. So, it is not the low-skilled type jobs. While the number is not that large, it is growing rather quickly.”

In his remarks at the MEDC meeting, Mayor Darling stressed the importance of having a strong fiber optic network in McAllen.

“One of the things that we have, 95 percent of all the fiber optic traffic that goes to Mexico and Central America goes right through 10th Street, it goes through the Chase Bank building and on through our bridge to a switching station in Reynosa. When you look at the huge requirements for data storage we are sitting on a very unique situation. We are trying to make sure we take advantage of that.” 

Interviewed after the meeting, Darling said never mind 5G, a number of neighborhoods in McAllen do not even have 1G. Darling noted that the City of McAllen is in litigation with Internet providers.

“If you are going to have the benefits of a public utility, meaning you have the right to use city right of way, then you ought to have the traditional obligations. Take electricity. We regulate rates, we regulate service requirements. If you have the benefits of a public utility you should have the obligations.”

Asked about the importance of McAllen being fully “wired,” Darling said: “The Internet of Things is important. People are walking around with a data center on their wrist. It is growing and growing. Your community better have it. We talk about smart cities, we have fiber optics. We need to develop a business plan. We are only using two strands out of a 96 strand fiber optic cable.”

Also interviewed after the meeting, MEDC’s Patridge said his organization is picking up interesting information from consultants.

“When you start looking at data centers, they do not have a lot of employees but those they have are highly paid. And there is a very high capital investment. The date center companies are now going to second tier cities and we are considered a second tier city. With things like self-driving cars, you have to have the cloud capacity close by. They are looking to put data centers away from the traditional centers such as Dallas and San Antonio.”

Asked if McAllen has enough residents with high speed internet at home to service the needs of the potential call center company, Patridge said: “In most areas, yes. But we are looking to help less fortunate areas.”

Mayor Darling added: “When McAllen EDC developed a strategy to bring in maquiladoras, 30, 40 years ago, people said, what are you talking about. It was hard. Now we are talking about medical research, technology research, research itself. I am excited MEDC has grabbed on to it.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows McAllen Economic Development Corporation President Keith Patridge and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.