MCALLEN, Texas – The City of McAllen and McAllen ISD are working together to ensure students have good wifi while their schools are furloughed.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has made the Rio Grande Valley’s digital divide a top issue, berating Internet providers for not offering their services in the south part of town.

Recently, at Darling’s prompting, city leaders made free WiFi hot spots available throughout McAllen. The McAllen Independent School District made available equipment necessary for the connection points to provide the WiFi spots.

“These are just some of the great things that government agencies can do when we work together,” said McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez. “Alone, this project was too cost-prohibitive to make a reality for either the City of McAllen or McAllen I.S.D., but thanks to the great partnership that we have always had with M.I.S.D., we were able to fast-track this project to help all of our students continue with their academic education that is still so vital and necessary.”

Roy Rodriguez

Due to the coronavirus, public schools across the Rio Grande Valley have extended spring breaks through April. Valley leaders such as state Sen. Eddie Lucio and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez have voiced concerns that too many Valley families cannot afford Internet services or Internet providers will not provide the service where they live. Because of that, they say,  such students will be at a disadvantage when it comes to doing homework.

McAllen I.S.D. Superintendent Dr. J. A. Gonzalez said he was pleased with what is being offered in his city.

“We have always had an excellent working relationship with the City of McAllen. In our response to COVID-19, we are requiring children remain at home as the learning continues. Many of our families will benefit from access to a hot spot so they can stay in communication with their teacher, turn in work and continue with their education. We appreciate the City of McAllen’s help in making this possible,” Gonzalez said.

City manager Rodriguez pointed out that McAllen has invested in a fiber optic infrastructure that covers the entire city. He said over 60 miles of high quality, high-speed fiber optic cable, capable of delivering internet and other communication service, has been installed. The cost for such infrastructure was approximately $2.4 million.

J.A. Gonzalez

Superintendent Gonzalez said McAllen I.S.D. made available the equipment necessary to connect to the fiber optic, to the City of McAllen, to make the connections possible to provide the Wifi service. The project, which had already been in the works, was fast-tracked to help students and families during the school furlough, he said.

Rodriguez said the City of McAllen information technology staff have been busy installing the equipment throughout McAllen and all spots should be operational and available by the end of Friday, March 20.

Many of the WiFi hot spots are located in McAllen City-School parks across the city. Those wishing to take advantage of the wifi hotspots should be aware that all public restrooms in these parks have been locked to public access for health purposes.

However, officials caution that with an entire nation attempting to access the same internet across the country, delays and lags and service may be possible.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the three metropolitan statistical areas in South Texas – Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo – are among the least “wired” communities in the country.

Knowing that Valley schools will be closed for an indefinite period, Congressman Gonzalez recently wrote to President Trump about the digital divide in South Texas.

“As K-12, college and university instruction and coursework move online, we must ensure students and teachers have the tools and resources they need to continue learning and teaching,” Congressman Gonzalez wrote, in his letter to the president.

“The Federal Communications Commission, in conjunction with the Department of Education and telecommunications companies, should work to improve access for students that may have difficulties accessing the internet, particularly in areas that already experience limited access, such as rural America. Any disruptions in internet service could have lasting impacts on academic performance and development.”

Eddie Lucio, Jr.
Eddie Lucio, Jr.

Sen. Lucio said he is backing moves in the U.Senate that call on Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to temporarily allow schools to use E-Rate funding to provide Wi-Fi capable devices and hotspots to students during the current health crisis.

“As the Coronavirus outbreak begins to close our public schools, I strongly urge our federal government to do everything in its power to ensure that children who lack internet access at home, especially from lower income and rural communities like those in South Texas, are not negatively impacted by the Coronavirus,” Lucio, a member of the Senate Committee on Education, stated.

“That is why I join efforts in calling for Congress and the FCC to appropriately adjust the E-Rate program to provide needed Wi-Fi capabilities so that all children have the ability to learn remotely through the internet. Every possible step needs to be taken to ensure that the health and academic success of our children are not negatively impacted by the Coronavirus outbreak.”

Here is a map of the new wifi hotspots in McAllen: