The digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley is an issue of great concern for city leaders, education officials and organizations, businesses, families and children. 

It is an issue that the City of McAllen first championed under former Mayor Jim Darling in 2014, petitioning the Obama Administration and major telecommunications organizations to help bridge this gap. Unfortunately for this area, the disparity was not a priority at the time.

The pandemic highlighted and acerbated the problem, with many families simply unable to provide high-speed internet access for their children to maintain meaningful remote learning. 

In recent years, different communities have sought various solutions to provide affordable internet access that make sense for their residents.

In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, when work and schools shifted to virtual and remote access, the digital divide was a challenge for many families to be able to overcome. As local families were struggling to help their children access the internet, City of McAllen leaders worked together with the McAllen Independent School District to develop a plan to provide access to high-speed internet – for free. When CARES Act funding became available, City of McAllen leaders focused on investing $3.1 million to install 1,000 Wi-Fi hot spots from south McAllen and throughout the entire community, in city parks and in neighborhoods where internet access was not be readily available. McAllen I.S.D. provided My-Fi tools to further enhance the access to the free internet. Because of the urgency of the need, the nodes were installed by Frontera Consulting in a matter of weeks and the community-wide, fixed wireless, outdoor Wi-Fi access network served, and continues to serve, thousands of students, faculty, and citizens. 

This collaboration to provide free internet access has earned the City of McAllen, McAllen I.S.D. and Frontera Consulting the Connectivity Award from Cambium Networks in 2021 and in 2022, the City of McAllen received the Digital Equity Award from the National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors.

Another option that other communities are currently pursuing is broadband internet service, which is another solution that should help provide internet access to their residents at an affordable price. Broadband is not free; it simply is another internet telecommunication provider that families will have to budget for.

However, all options to help bridge the digital divide throughout the Rio Grande Valley should be celebrated as each municipality and county government develops solutions that make sense for their community; no one effort should ever be dismissed over the other.

The City of McAllen is proud of its free internet access project, developed in collaboration with McAllen I.S.D. which continues, uninterrupted and at no cost, to anyone in the community.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, P.E. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Rodriguez can be reached by email via: [email protected].

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