LAS MILPAS, RGV – It was in November, 2015, in McAllen, that Jordana Barton first announced that Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas wanted to help shrink the digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley.
Barton, senior advisor for community development for the Dallas Fed’s San Antonio branch, gave a presentation titled “Closing the Digital Divide in the RGV: Why Digital Equity is Vital for a Strong Economy.”
She gave her remarks at the 2015 Border Economic Development & Entrepreneurship Symposium, which was hosted jointly by UT-Rio Grande Valley, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, making the case that eliminating the digital divide is a key component in improving a region’s economic vitality.
“Digital equity must be central to community economic development. Like electricity a century ago, broadband is the foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life. It is enabling entire new industries and unlocking vast new possibilities. It is changing how we educate children, deliver healthcare, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government and access, organize and disseminate knowledge,” Barton said.
Barton said three Metropolitan Statistical Areas along the Texas-Mexico border – McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo – have great digital divides. One of the Federal Reserve Bank’s charts contrasted the digital divide in the three South Texas MSA regions with Austin, Texas. In Austin, the percentage of households with a computer was 92 percent. In Laredo it was 69.3 percent, in Brownsville-Harlingen it was 71.7 percent and in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission it was 75.6 percent. The regional computer gap scored Austin at zero, Laredo at minus 22.7, Brownsville-Harlingen at minus 20.3, and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission at minus 16.4.
The percentage of households in Austin with high-speed broadband was 82.0. In Laredo it was 51.8, in Brownsville-Harlingen it was 57.4, and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission it was 55.2. The regional high-speed internet gap was zero in Austin, minus 31 in Laredo, minus 25.3 in Brownsville-Harlingen, and minus 27.6 in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission.
Things have not improved much since then, which is why Barton was back in the Valley on Friday, to announce the launch of a pilot project that will deploy FREE broadband Wi-Fi internet service into the homes of selected recipient families in South Pharr, otherwise known as Las Milpas.
A news conference was held in the library of Cesar Chavez Elementary in South Pharr. Joining Barton was Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, M.D., Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King and PSJA ISD school board vice-president Jesse Zambrano. Each agreed that bridging the digital divide and connecting families with internet service in their homes was a necessity in today’s digital age.
The project partners highlighted the importance of partnerships between and among cities like Pharr, educational institutions like PSJA ISD, agencies such as the Federal Reserve Bank and private companies such as BBVA Compass Bank, which was an early supporter of the collaborative initiative. After remarks by Hernandez, King, and Barton, family recipients gave brief testimonials thanking the partners for their efforts to create opportunities for families and children in South Pharr.
The project partners pointed out that the South Pharr initiative has been several years in the making, and stems from a larger initiative, the Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley (DO4RGV), South Texas, that was formed after a 2015 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The report, focusing on colonias, identified a common challenge – residents’ lack of access to the internet. This lack of access hindered labor market opportunities and the school work of students living in colonias.
Mayor Hernandez said he and the city commission are committed to helping Pharr families succeed, noting that connectivity in the home opens doors to numerous opportunities. Hernandez said the City of Pharr invested funds from its budget for this pilot project to bridge the digital divide for participating families. He said the launch of the pilot project marks the beginning of a larger plan to expand internet connectivity for Pharr residents.
“As mayor of Pharr, my colleagues on the Pharr City Commission and I, in coordination with the project partners, are addressing a serious need that many rural communities face – lack of access to internet service,” said Hernandez. “Pharr took the lead to develop strategic solutions to connect residents and families with the critical infrastructure necessary to access, navigate and succeed in today’s online world.
“Through this pilot project, we are laying the technology, infrastructure, and network capabilities to make Pharr competitive and innovative, and we are confident that this pilot project will make a case for future funding and expansion to further serve and connect our community.”
Editor’s Note: Click here to read about the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the City of Pharr, PSJA ISD, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.