McALLEN, RGV – Region One ESC, PSJA ISD and La Joya ISD are among the Rio Grande Valley institutions joining forces with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Dell Computers, Kajeet, and Verizon Wireless to address the digital divide in the region.

According to a new report from the Dallas Fed, McAllen-Edinburg-Mission has the greatest digital divide in the nation among the larger metropolitan statistical areas. Among the smaller MSAs, Laredo and Brownsville-Harlingen have high digital divides.

Jordana Barton recently coordinated the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ Las Colonias in the 21st Century – Progress Along the Texas-Mexico Border conference at the McAllen Convention Center. Barton said the bank and its local education and high tech partners have set up the Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley (DO4RGV) group to address the digital divide.

Jordana Barton of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Jordana Barton of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“Digital access is the new electricity, we need to give people access and create equity,” Barton told the Rio Grande Guardian. “Of the 381 metropolitan areas in the U.S., those with the lowest rates of computer ownership and Internet use by individuals include three Texas border MSAs. In Texas, there is a significant overlap between the areas with the lowest levels of computer ownership and Internet use and the areas with the highest concentration of colonias.”

Asked to respond to the point that most kids these days, if not most parents, have a smartphone, Barton said: “The smartphone does not solve the homework divide. We take the view that levelling the playing field at school means allowing students to do their homework at home.”

Barton said the Dallas Fed did a mixed message study among focus groups of colonia residents to produce extensive, qualitative studies. “We talked to residents and the non-profits that serve colonia families. We found parents are parking outside the school to try to get Wi-Fi access for their kids. In El Paso we found an administrator at a self-help center taking kids home at night to give them access to the Internet. We are relying on the wonderful, amazing goodwill of individuals.”

At the recent colonias conference Barton had a poster display which showed the disparity in digital access.

One of the charts compared South Texas MSA regions with Austin, Texas. In Austin, the percentage of households with a computer is 92 percent. In Laredo it is 69.3 percent, in Brownsville-Harlingen it is 71.7 percent and in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission it is 75.6 percent. The regional computer gap scores 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 is 82.0. In Laredo it is 51.8, in Brownsville-Harlingen it is 57.4, and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission it is 55.2. The regional high-speed internet gap is zero in Austin, minus 31 in Laredo, minus 25.3 in Brownsville-Harlingen, and minus 27.6 in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission.

The Dallas Fed report stated:

“Internet connectivity can make a dramatic difference – particularly in residents’ ability to learn about, invest in and shop for career opportunities, education, housing and financial products. For example, they could apply for jobs, enroll in online classes and use financial products and services that are higher quality than those offered locally.

“According to the Center for Public Integrity’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, there is a distinct digital divide between low-income and higher-income households. In fact, McAllen has the lowest broadband subscription rate in the U.S.”

The report included a quote from John Dunbar, of the Center for Public Integrity. “Every major survey has shown that the lower the income, the less likely it is that households will subscribe to the Internet. Wealthier households subscribe at a rate of 80 percent to 100 percent, while low-income areas of the city, some exceeding a 50 percent poverty rate, subscribe at a rate of 40 percent to 60 percent,” Dunbar said. The quote came from the Center for Public Integrity’s ‘Poverty stretches the Digital Divide” document.

The Dallas Fed’s poster display listed the bank’s goals for DO4RGV. They are:
*Educational opportunity and results for Pre-K thru 12 students
* Access to financial services and online banking
* Financial literacy through access to the Dallas Fed’s Building Wealth and Navigate curricula
* Access to workforce opportunities, including training and job opportunities
* Access to the Internet and online marketing for micro-entrepreneurs in the region

How is DO4RGV going to achieve this? The poster display said:
*Community led collective impact
* Deeply discounted home Internet
* Discounted home laptop and tablet PCs
* Bilingual Educational Content
* Bilingual Tech Support
* Digital Opportunity Corps (student IT experts)
* Financing

Robert McLaughlin, director of leadership for learning innovation for EDC Learning Transforms Lives, is part of DO4RGV. McLaughlin listed some of the ways the digital divide along the Texas-Mexico border region can be shrunk.

“In the colonias and areas outside the cities we have to get with the different providers of broadband, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, etc., and find out which broadband provider has the best coverage for which community. We then have to get with the provider to pool our buying power in such a way as to lower the cost with the funding sources that are available for residents and organizations in those areas,” McLaughlin said.

“Another technical thing we can do is fit Wi-Fi into new street lights. For an extra $60 per stoplight a city or municipality can provide a hotspot with a 200-feet radius of each street light. Another thing we can do, for those communities that have access to cable TV franchises, is negotiate with the cable company to find out what they can give back in the form of Internet services. Before the give back was in the form of public access and educational access channels. I think today in the digital economy, the currency is a little different. And the cost may be the same. Instead of setting up a public access TV production studio, for example, you could negotiate for affordable broadband.”

McLaughlin said Comcast has a program where 2.4 million families are eligible for its Internet Essentials program, which offers high speed, unlimited, broadband a $9.99 a month. “The cable industry can support this. It is going to take a vendor neutral approach. I will work with any Internet service provider who is looking to work with us or that we can compel to work with communities. We can say, look, we will give you more market share. We will give you more people that participate. In the long run you will do well by doing good.”

Asked how quickly DO4RGV can make a difference, McLaughlin said it is going to happen in phases.

Robert McLaughlin of EDC Learning Transforms Lives.
Robert McLaughlin of EDC Learning Transforms Lives.

“We do want to have an impact right away. We want to have the beginnings of a broadband co-op, this cooperative notion of pooling buying power, in place by the end of this calendar year so that we can begin to offer low-interest financing for low-income families and seed-fund that. I would also like to see us get one or two chapters, locally created, of GenYes. This is a non-profit working in 24 countries. It is a fabulous program and youth lead the charge on this. It is an initiative where kids will be providing multi-lingual tech support at home and in the community, as well as in the classroom. Once you have developed the capacity in the community it costs pennies a year to maintain a GenYes chapter.”

Asked how GenYes works, McLaughlin said: “If you place it in the curriculum of a high school or a middle school, or a boys and girls club, or a community center there are ways of doing this very inexpensively. If you want to participate, GenYes is charging $2,000 or $3,000 a year. So a local business could sponsor this. We have got the expertise, we have got the talent. We have the human capital.”

Another big part of the project, McLaughlin said, is tapping into the community reinvestment dollars that banks have to provide.

“Through the Community Reinvestment Act, banks annually commit $200 billion. If we are successful, as we hope we will be, we will be opening up hundreds of millions of dollars a year in economic investment and digital equity by simply making it a small but vital component of a comprehensive, integrated, approach to economic development in high poverty communities. This is a viable and worthwhile thing to do. In a digital age economy, digital equity should not wag the dog but it should be a component,” McLaughlin said.