BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez has made eliminating the digital divide a top priority for his administration.

In his first state of the city address, Mendez said for Brownsville to have a huge digital divide is “totally unacceptable” and “almost makes us third world.”

He said he wants to have a “strategic broadband plan” to address the issue in place by May 2020.

According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 67 percent of households in Brownsville lack connected broadband internet, making the city the least “wired” in the nation.

Here is what Mendez said about the digital divide in his speech:

“Access to broadband is going to be something that is going to determine our future. Some cities are doing this already. Nobody really here. But the wave of the future is digital and we are going to have to start moving toward that if we are going to competitive in a different environment, in a digital environment. So, with the help of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank we are bringing important stakeholders together to see how we can close what is called the digital divide.

“The thing about the digital divide is, it is almost something that makes us third world. If you do not have access to broadband, if you do not have access to wifi, if students don’t have access to the internet, they cannot do their homework, they do not have access to knowledge.

“Businesses cannot keep their data. They are not able to access all this infrastructure that they need. We see that. We see the value in digital technology and we are working towards moving forward with bridging that digital divide and laying the infrastructure across the city is going to provide that access to broadband, more digital services, fiber.

“Just having this digital divide is just totally unacceptable. We have got discussions that are underway in Washington, D.C., to see how we can tackle this issue. By May 2020 we should have a strategic broadband plan in place and work towards implementing that.”

Cowen’s viewpoint

Brownsville ISD board member Philip Cowen.

In a Q&A after the speech, Brownsville ISD school board member Philip Cowen praised Mendez for focusing on the digital divide. Cowen told a story about a Porter High student who was supposed to send her school principal her valedictorian speech via email. However, she had to go door-to-door in her neighborhood in order to find someone who had internet access. He said the student was now at Cornell University.

In an in-depth interview afterwards, Cowen told the Rio Grande Guardian that the digital divide goes hand in hand with poverty.

“We have a day, early in the semester, we call Walk to the Future and what we do is go look for the students that did not show up. This year we went to a couple of homes in the Lopez High School area, which is the southern most high school in the United States. We found a home where a student could not go to school. She was 15, she could not go to school because her mother was dying of cancer. She had not help or insurance. That is the reality of our world,” Cowen said.

He then gave another example.

“We found another home where there were eight children living, the mother had been deported, no father. There was a 16-year-old boy who had been out of school since 7th grade. Of the eight children, only one was in school. It was just shocking. Anyway, we got them all in school. They were living in an abandoned home. We were able to find them some housing. It is beyond third world. This is the kind of poverty you would see probably in the slums of Bombay or Mumbai, some of those places, Nigeria, Lagos, places like that. Beyond poverty.”

Cowen said Brownsville ISD has been able to take students from the third world to the first world in a span of four or five years.

“That young man that we found at the house who hadn’t been to school since the 7th grade, if he will stick with it, we can get him to where, seven years from now, he could be a teacher himself. We do it all the time. Recently, we were designated an “A” school district by the Texas Education Agency. It was very prestigious to receive.”

Cowen gave more information about the valedictorian who is now at Cornell.

“We had a person who graduated from Porter High School as valedictorian that never had internet the whole time she was growing up. Yet she went from that third world environment to the first world. She is now at Cornell. We know how to do that.”

Cowen said the story of the student having to go door-to-door in order to access the internet almost made him cry.

“She walked door to door looking for a place to have access to Internet. This is sweet little thing tried so hard and she got through. She sent her graduation speech to the principal. It broke her heart when we she found out.”

Cowen said Brownsville ISD had the foresight, six or seven years ago, to put in fiber-optic cable around the city.

“It is like a circle, going out like spokes, to the different schools. We can be the trunk line for the city’s digital world. If we take our resources, we put in three or four million, the city and the federal reserve (do the same), we would have enough money. I am even willing to take a bond issue out. It is worth it because we can go from that third world to where we need to be.”

Cowen said jumping from third world to first world has happened elsewhere.

“You know what has happened in Asia. They have gone from no infrastructure to where infrastructure became obsolete. We can do the same thing in Brownsville. We can cross that digital divide without having to build in that intermediate infrastructure that is really a 20th Century infrastructure.”

Cowen said BISD leadership has not yet spoken to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas but we has talked to the mayor.

“Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal has made a commitment to work with BISD to go ahead and put (digital infrastructure) this into place. So, I think it is something we are going to be able to get done. We will have our children in the world.”

Cowen said he was not sure how much it would cost to make Brownsville fully connected with broadband services.

“I maybe wrong but I think it is about three or four million. If we did it right. Don’t worry about who gets the credit. We will put a bunch of names in the hat and figure that out. We just want to make sure our children, our students, our families, have access to the internet. Everybody is communicating in this great global village that we have today.”

Mendez’s viewpoint

Interviewed after his state of the city speech, Mayor Mendez said anybody like himself who has grown up in Brownsville knows a story like the one of the Porter High School valedictorian student who could not access the internet.

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez

“It just brings to light a lot of the issues that we need to work on. The future is digital. We need to get a plan in place to start building that infrastructure, building that network so everybody has access to it that needs it. Not just students. Students are the most important but we are looking at hospitals, we are looking at the port, we are looking at the space industry, we are looking at everybody else, every business that might need that, as a focal component of their business. That is something that makes us more attractive to investors,” Mendez said.

Asked about the cost of “completely wiring” Brownsville, Mendez said he did not have an answer just yet.

“I think there are ways we can benefit from putting the infrastructure in certain places, for example, the trail system we already have. I think if we are smart about it I think we can put in the infrastructure while we are doing the trails.”

Mendez added: “We want to be innovative. We want to the be the city that is leading the way in technology, not just in the RGV but the southern part of the state, for sure.”

Lozoya’s viewpoint

Mario Lozoya, executive director of the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation.

Among those in the audience at the state of the city event was Mario Lozoya, executive  director of the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation. Lozoya has championed eliminating the digital divide more than any other economic development leader in the Valley.

“I was very excited that Mayor Mendez made that a point and spent some time speaking about the issue. It is important. I wish other mayors in the Valley would take that and share that vision with him,” Lozoya told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Lozoya said Brownsville has a lot to do to eliminate the digital divide.

“Depending on which survey you look at, the reality is Brownsville is number one, two or three in the least connected communities in the country. For many different factors, not just infrastructure. Sometimes it is directly correlated with the fact that we live in a poor community. I believe 34 percent of the Brownsville community is in the poverty level,” Lozoya said.

“So, when you have that and mom and dad (and they) have a decision to make, do I put food on the table, put gas in my car to go to work or take the bus, or pay a service provider like Spectrum so my kids can watch TV, they are probably not going to buy the service to watch TV, right? So, they are not connected. So, it is not always the infrastructure. It is the fact that we are in a poverty level. What can do to support that?”

Lozoya said Mendez is right to suggest providing broadband in common areas such as in libraries and on buses.

“Anything the city owns, anything that is county-owned, anything the school district owns, provide access to these poor communities. We do not need to put any more hurdles on them, they have enough. We need to alleviate the hurdles and this (the digital divide) is one of them.”

Asked to make the case that elimination of the digital divide is an economic development issue, Lozoya said:

“Workforce is now the number one issue in economic development, it is not incentives, it is not land, although they are nice. Employers want to know, where is my workforce, is it skilled and will it help me longterm for sustainability and profitability. If the answer is no, they are not coming. So, when they see programs and vision and commitment from the EDCs, from the cities, okay, now you can be closer to finalizing economic development projects because now that investor sees the opportunities to invest in those communities. Otherwise it is a challenge.”

Lozoya said he, for one, is taking the digital divide issue seriously.

“To me it is very serious, to the point that it should be a top legislative agenda item every session, until we are not on the top of the list as the least connected communities in the country. Until that happens, it needs to be a top priority because it is affecting your students, it is affecting you, it is affecting the economic prosperity of your community. We need to pay attention to it.”

Lozoya also spoke about the valedictorian from Porter High who had no internet at home during her school years. He said that during her valedictorian address, the student asked how much further along she and her school mates could have been, had they had internet access.

“We grow up in these poor communities with challenges. What if we did not have these challenges, what if were connected to the internet and we knew more. If I am a valedictorian with these challenges, what then for the rest of my community, my neighbors, my friends?” Lozoya said the student said, in her address.

“That is what I am talking about. If we are not providing the tools necessary for the people to be successful we are doing them a disservice. Shame on us because they are very capable and we need to help them realize their dreams. I call it social mobility. How can move them socially if we are providing all these hurdles for them? We must remove those hurdles.

“Can you imagine them better educated and they know more because they are connected and they can read that there are grants for me if I want to start a shop or a restaurant and there is help for me and I know now how to apply for these things. I know now about SBA (Small Business Administration). Right now, they do not know about these things.”

Asked how GBIC was progressing with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in addressing the digital divide, Lozoya said:

“Jordana Barton continues to be the lead voice from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas ranks. She was here in Brownsville recently to meet with the mayor and others. Essentially, the Federal Reserve Bank is committed to making this a top agenda item because they see the benefit of communities coming out of this condition and creating wealth. It is a top item for them still. All I see from these kinds of partnerships is good things for the people of Brownsville. Hopefully, that bleeds over to the rest of the Valley.”