They call it the “digital divide” – the gap between those who have access to reliable, high-speed Internet and devices that connect to the Internet, and those who do not. There are many contributing factors to this “digital divide” including such things as affordability, adoption, access, and the proficiency of the users. However, at the core of this divide is Internet infrastructure.

The Brownsville Problem 

According to the American Community Survey, nearly 67% of Brownsville households lack access to cable, DSL, or fiber (“wireline”) broadband. This translates into approximately 12,707 households without broadband of any type, and approximately 36,658 households without cable, fiber optic and DSL.  Ranking consistently as one of the least connected City is not a fact that the city can be proud of, however, it can inspire us to rally leadership and major stakeholders to strategically leverage their assets and resources to solve the problem themselves. 

The Brownsville Solution

In a public-private partnership, The City of Brownsville and Lit Communities have developed a plan that focuses on using technology to increase connectivity and create community throughout the City of Brownsville. The benefits to this community and its residents are many, including:

·      Increased Connectivity ­– By deploying these networks, we will connect businesses and residents alike through high-speed gigabit fiber Internet.

·      Reduction in “Down Internet” – Our existing broadband choices rely on aging copper cable connections, causing households to have connectivity issues and significant internet outages throughout our City.

·      Increased Adoption – Our market is dominated by a single provider, which is not good for level of service or pricing.

·      Making Brownsville a Smart City – Enhanced connectivity through high-speed Internet brings with it many opportunities for Brownsville to build a better future.

·      Marked Smart Utilities – We will know precisely where your utility assets are located, their age and if they are in proper working order.

·      Reducing the Homework Gap ­– A robust fiber network will enable greater access to high quality and symmetrical Internet speeds to support remote learning for students and residents.

·      Improving Public Safety –Fast internet and built-in network redundancy allows for emergency responders to stay connected and ensure facilities are up and running.

·      Connecting Public Parks and Trails to Wi-Fi ­– Public parks and trails with Wi-Fi is a great way to incentivize residents to get out and enjoy the community.

·      Reviving Downtown –Brownsville’s downtown and main streets – with highspeed Internet – will both incentivize new businesses and increase foot traffic.

·      Creating Opportunity for Business Innovation Access to high-speed internet will not only allow residents to shop online and engage in e-Commerce but will also allow businesses to expand their operations online.

·      Building E-Government Services – Technological communications devices and the Internet will provide public services to residents of the city.

·      Advancing Telehealth – Working with local providers, partners, and hospital systems to increase the adoption of telehealth by bringing the clinic to the couch and the exam room to the living room by bundling livestreaming healthcare access to the home.

·      Developing Our Workforce – Affordable and accessible internet access allows for residents to expand their knowledge and skills in this increasingly digital world.

·      International Trade – There is a significant opportunity to add redundancy to the port’s current operation as well as enhance security and communications with reliable high-speed Internet.

·      Strengthening Economic Development (Major Industries) – High-speed symmetrical network will assist the city and its Economic Development Corporations, GBIC (Type A) and BCIC (Type B) attraction of National and State leads and support retention and expansion efforts.

The first step in solving the digital divide specific to our city is to establish a backbone network known as the Middle Mile. The Middle Mile was designed to focus on connecting anchor

institutions and building redundancy into the network. The City of Brownsville has invested nearly $19.5 million in this project to provide the Middle Mile network backbone in downtown Brownsville; funded by American Rescue Plan Act.

As the Middle Mile network is built, BTX Fiber – powered by Lit Communities – will begin work on a $70 million project to make fiber-based broadband available to homes and businesses throughout Brownsville. In today’s world and going forward, this is a necessity, not a luxury. Such infrastructure is already critical to work, school, play, and healthcare, and each passing year makes that only truer.

The Power of Public-Private Partnerships

This is a great example of the power of public-private partnerships. We believe in private enterprise. A core tenet of that belief is the value of competition. Two of the biggest internet service providers (ISP) in the nation — AT&T and Charter Communications – have long had the opportunity to step-up and invest in our community through the kind of monopolies that utilities have long enjoyed. 

In return for these protected service areas, these companies are expected to grow their service capabilities while growing their bottom line. They have chosen not to. Instead, they’re asserting that such a city-owned system is not necessary. That they have it covered. If that’s true, then why is the digital divide here one of the nation’s largest?

They also say that only public and government buildings will be served. That’s not the case. Our new network will extend the power of fiber-based Internet throughout the community. There are other spurious arguments against what we’re doing. AT&T, for instance, has argued that it cannot maintain its security and service standards while using the Middle Mile network from another provider. 

That’s like Ford saying only it can build automobiles or Union Pacific saying only its tracks are good enough. Such arguments ignore the commodity nature of these services, as well as the interconnectivity that’s been built into the idea of shared infrastructure that’s hard-wired into the American way of creating nationwide grids of all kinds.

Cities across the country have undertaken this kind of initiative and their broadband work is already successful, producing enough revenue to make it sustainable while providing a critical service that its residents may not otherwise be able to access and/or afford.

Meanwhile, the State of Texas is now moving forward on a statewide broadband plan using more than $500 million in U.S. Treasury Capital Projects funding with additional Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding on the way. That’s exciting and we are preparing Brownsville now to be a part of that process. Together, we will give our citizens the ability to connect across the state, the nation, and the world.

We have done our due diligence. In July 2020, the city commissioned a Broadband Feasibility Study, with key partners including educational institutions (UTRGV, TSC, BISD), economic development drivers (GBIC, BCIC, main utility company (BPUB), and the Port of Brownsville. We have a plan focused on closing the digital divide in our city. And now, we are executing the plan so that, together, we can prepare our city for a bright and promising future. It is our sincere hope that all will embrace this opportunity for a better tomorrow. And I truly believe that this rising tide will lift all boats.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Trey Mendez, mayor of Brownsville. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Mendez can be reached by email via: [email protected]

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