MCALLEN, RGV – Jordana Barton, senior advisor for community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, was in the Rio Grande Valley recent to give an update on her organization’s efforts to reduce the digital divide in the region.

The Dallas Fed has worked with the City of Pharr and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD to conduct a pilot project in the Las Milpas area. At a recent stakeholders meeting at the Embassy Suites in McAllen, Barton discussed a Strategic Engineering Plan that evaluated what infrastructure is in place and what additions need to be made.

A new addition to the team is Frontera Communications, led by Drew Lentz.

“With this Strategic Engineering Plan, we studied the assets and infrastructure needs of the region. How do you get families connected? I am pleased to say Drew and Frontera Communications will be a partner in this,” Barton said. “We are looking for immediate solutions, with the proper speeds people need. I am pleased to say there is some infrastructure and awesome technologies that can serve a whole neighborhood.”

Barton said the Dallas Fed is not only looking for long-term, sustainable, solutions to the Valley’s digital divide, but also some quick fixes.

“We want to employ everything we can because children are growing up right now. They are in school right now. Families have needs right now. Students need to do their homework, Parents are looking for jobs, sending resumes,” Barton said.

“We want to do both, long-term and short-term. We want to be smart and strategic and take the most cost-effective route. For communities, what we have learned is, it is a combination, you access what the needs are, you deploy the most cost-effective solutions, and get the results you want.”

Another aspect of the work, Barton said, is understanding the needs of industry.

“You have the business needs of the community. The Valley has an international border. What kind of fiber-optic speeds do you need to have real, efficiency, that would mean money for the City of Pharr, income. How do you develop that kind of capacity, something that is sustainable? The whole purpose is to be sustainable.”

Asked who the core partners in the project are, Barton said:

“The core partners are PSJA, UTRGV, the City of Pharr, Frontera, and Region 1 Education Service Center. UTRGV and Region 1 are these regional organizations, we need them for the replication of this. We really need them now, too. They have a certain role to play,” Barton said.

“And the partnership between Region 1 and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD is critical. They can help bring in resources, they can share best practices with other school districts, they are the connector across the border. Likewise, UTRGV is an anchor institution across the region, so they are important. They are important now too because we are exploring the digital skills training, the devices piece of this, we have different roles we are employing with them in that regard.”

Barton said that when the MOU was signed each of the participants needed to reach an understanding on what their roles would be. This was needed just to get a strategic engineering study completed, she explained.

“We are getting the first several hundred families connected. And we are rolling out the digital skills training that has already started at PSJA for parents and students,” Barton said.

The pilot program requires that parents signed up to receive high-speed Internet also get computers to work on, so they can go through digital skills training.

“Our goal is to provide each family with a computer for their home. Something they earn by getting the training. We have the facilities at PSJA, but the idea is to have computers in the home.”

A phrase used a lot in the rollout of high-speed Internet to colonia residents is delivery to “the last mile.” Asked to define this phrase, Barton said:

“The last mile is the fiber to the home, or the wireless connection to the home, whether it is in an urban area or a rural area. In the rural areas, we have more distance and fewer people. It is all about whether an internet service provider can afford to have the infrastructure necessary to reach houses that are few and far between. That is why a strategic engineering analysis is so important,” Barton said.

“With the great technologies we have in wireless you can do a combination of either wireless infrastructure or fiber-optic infrastructure that is there. It depends. You have to look at the different solutions. You have to understand the technologies and what is open to you. This (the Rio Grande Valley) is actually a wonderful place to study and to come up with best practices because it is both urban and rural.”

Pharr EDC Director and PSJA ISD School Board member Victor Perez, PSJA ISD Assistant Secretary/Treasurer Jorge Zambrano, PSJA ISD Vice-President Jesse Zambrano, Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, MD, Jordana Barton of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, PSJA ISD Chief Technology Officer Adrian Garcia, free Internet recipients Cynthia Llanas and Maria del Carmen Llanas, then-Pharr IT Director Jason Arms, PSJA ISD Superintendent Dr. Daniel P. King, and Ernesto Sepulveda of BBVA Compass Bank.

A few years back Barton studied the Valley’s colonias for an in-depth Dallas Fed report. She said the information gathered for this report came in handy for the digital divide project.

“What is the solution for the colonias? We are looking at all solutions. Some of the wireless and microwave technology solutions are the best for the colonia areas, that is the most affordable way to do it. We are assessing, can you get people 100 mbps so residents can run their e-commerce business or run their farm or run their home-based business?” Barton said.

MBPS stands for megabits per second.

“One of the things I pointed out in the colonia study was how important home-based businesses are to this region. Can people now have this capacity in their home? That is what we are going for and it is multiple solutions, it is not one size fits all. The most important thing about this is that local governments can decide to make it part of their digital inclusion, part of their economic development plan, and they can achieve it. Because there are partnerships to be made.”

Asked what the next step will be, Barton said:

“The next step is going to be a meeting regarding the Strategic Engineering Plan, to make decisions on where infrastructure needs to be laid, what are going to be the last mile solutions. The city (Pharr) and the school district (PSJA) are already doing things. We are already trying things out. Frontera Communications is very involved. They could say, we can do this now. Let’s do this now. Now, whether 100 mbps is always going to be sufficient, it depends on your needs.”

Barton added that she has a feature coming out on tele-health and tele-medicine, for solving the health disparities on the border.

“How important broadband infrastructure is going to be for that, for deploying that tool? The kinds of speed you need depends on what you are doing. But to really unleash the capacity it is probably smart to have a plan for gigabit speed for the region. For the new medical school, all the things the students are going to be having to do, going out into the community and serving and all that. So, we are thinking long term and sustainable. At the same time, we want to help as many kids and people as we can right now. Because, we have the capacity with technology.”

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian reporters Steve Taylor and Patricia Martinez conducted an in-depth interview with Jordana Barton about DO4RGV at the conclusion of the Dec. 1 stakeholders meeting. Click here and here to read the other two stories based on the interview.

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian staff members Patricia Martinez and Dayna Reyes contributed to this series.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story first appeared in a news story in the New York Times about the digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley. It shows students in McAllen trying to get WiFi from a school nearby. Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman for the New York Times.