WESLACO, Texas – The State of Texas’ new statewide broadband plan was discussed at a recent meeting of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.

LRGVDC is the region’s official council of government and includes leaders from the counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy. 

The discussion started with Manuel Cruz, the LRGVDC’s executive director, announcing that Texas’ new statewide broadband plan has been published and is available for viewing online. 

“Does it reflect the reality of the Rio Grande Valley?” asked UT-Rio Grande Valley Vice President Veronica Gonzales.

Cruz responded: “I don’t believe they have done a fair assessment on what works best (for the Valley).”

Cruz pointed out that the team that worked on the statewide broadband plan, who come from the state Comptroller’s Office, used information collected during a listening tour of the state Comptroller Glenn Hegar conducted. “The good thing about it is all the councils of government are highlighted in the plan,” Cruz said. “They are aware of the disparity.”

The disparity Cruz noted was relates to the way broadband connectivity is measured. Rick Carrera, LRGVDC’s director of community and economic development, explained the problem.

“The issue with connectivity lies with the fact that it is all based on census tract. So, if I am living just within the boundary line of the census tract and I have connectivity and Mayor Hernandez is living on the far side of it and he has no connectivity, they count that census tract as having connectivity,” Carrera said.

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez is president of LRGVDC. His city has received plaudits for working on an ambitious universal access broadband initiative. So has the City of Brownsville. Brownsville’s mayor, Trey Mendez, joined in discussion. 

“Mayor Mendez, I know you guys are doing broadband, how is that going?” Hernandez asked. 

Mendez responded with a joke. 

“Good. We’re just trying to stay hot on your tail, man,” he said.  

“No, but, actually, we were fortunate that our broadband plan is a hybrid. It is a public-private partnership. The City is bringing about $19.5 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds and then we have a third party that is putting up $70 million, for the last mile.”

Hernandez responded: “That is great. A lot of communities are pushing forward with a necessity, right. It is no longer a luxury. It is almost a utility. You need it to survive in this world. So, congratulations.”

Like other members of LRGVDC, Hernandez was critical of the way broadband connectivity is measured. Responding to UTRGV’s Gonzales’ point, Hernandez said:

“I don’t think, Veronica, based upon what you are asking, they (the statewide broadband plan team) did a good job. We know for a fact, like Cameron County and Brownsville, for example, (like) McAllen. We know for a fact that we don’t have affordable high speed, reliable broadband in our cities. We know for a fact that if you are one person on the street having internet at 20 megabytes or ten megabytes, everybody calls that a success. We call that an utter failure. At least in the city of Pharr.”

“And so, we know what is out there. We know that it is just smoke and mirrors. But, at the end of the day I am glad that the LRGVDC is moving forward to address that scenario because we always get shortchanged and people tell us we have when everybody else knows we don’t have. It is time that we address that as a community.”

Former McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said his reading of the statewide broadband plan is that there is a clear delineation between rural and urban.

“I think they really emphasize the difference between rural and urban opportunities for broadband. Urban is where you partner with cities and public-private partnerships and rural is almost going to be left up the state because there isn’t an infrastructure or finance or the ability to finance that without a significant infusion of cash,” Darling said. 

Hernandez responded: “That is right. The other problem we have that I saw when I read it (the statewide broadband plan) is the cities, what you call the middle cities, either you are too poor or you are rural. Everybody else, like McAllen, a perfect example, you do not even qualify because you are not considered rural and you are not big, urban-wise. A lot of the cities in the Rio Grande Valley are exactly that. We are kind of like being excluded. Hopefully they can revise it or update it. For me, it does not look very promising.”

Mendez said the point Gonzales raised is the “root cause” of the issue.

“The federal government at this point, the maps that they have, are not good but that is what the federal funding is based on. We have been trying to get the federal government to look… I don’t know if the state plan is any better. But, like Pharr did, like Brownsville did, like McAllen did, we had to take it upon ourselves to go ahead and do all this,” Mendez said.

“Our plan, we have it all mapped out and we did all that ourselves basically because we had to. But I do share some concerns about the maps themselves because I don’t think they are accurate. I don’t think they will be accurate. And unfortunately, a lot of the places where connectivity is an issue will possibly remain an issue, in the short term at least.”

Gonzales pointed out that there are two Valley representatives on the state’s Broadband Development Office Board of Advisors. This board is based within the Comptroller’s Office and provides guidance to the Comptroller’s Broadband Development Office regarding the expansion, adoption, affordability and use of broadband service and programs administered by the office. 

“If I remember correctly there are two members in the Rio Grande Valley that are on the advisory board. Sergio Contreras is one and Alonzo Cantu is the other. So, any concerns we see, maybe as a group, collectively, we should make it known to them so that when they are having their meetings, that they advocate the state on behalf of the Valley, maybe any inaccuracies because if they start to allocate funding through the legislature, we want to make sure we are not left out in the cold,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales memory is correct. Contreras, CEO of Atlas, Hall & Rodriguez, was appointed to the advisory board by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Cantu, a businessman, developer, and co-founder of DHR Health, was appointed to the advisory board by House Speaker Dade Phelan. 

Broadband in the colonias

Cameron County Commissioner David Garza then spoke about a couple of success stories his county has had in rolling out high speed Internet.

“We just started a couple of projects in Cameron County in dead zones, which were completely dead to either internet service or cell phone service as test projects. What that revealed to us is that we needed to do an in-depth study of the whole county. We just awarded an RFP (request for proposals) with ARPA funds so that we can delineate all of the fiber infrastructure within the county and all of the zones that are accessible from existing infrastructure,” Garza said.

“The IIJA (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) money that is coming down has huge amounts but as always you have to have shovel-ready projects. So, we are creating shovel-ready projects in all of the different pockets of the county that don’t have access to today. And, of course, the minimum standards is 150 down and 150 up. That is just the minimum standard.”

Garza said the two colonias where high speed internet has been provided “have worked amazingly.” He said: “One in particular has 150 homes and not only did we go ahead and put the infrastructure in place, it cost the county $70,000 to put Internet in 250 homes; the people that live in those colonias, of course, qualify for the ESSR (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) monies. We had somebody go with an iPad and sign people up. It works great.”

Garza said the colonia to get broadband connectivity is rather isolated. He said it does not have very good cell service or broadband service. 

“That is a three and a half mile project that is a little more expensive but that is also turning out to be a great project. But, more importantly the RFP will create shovel-ready projects. And that is what I encourage all of you to do. If you don’t have a shovel-ready project when the money goes out you are going to be starting from scratch.”

Hernandez then told Pharr’s broadband connectivity story.

“We were found to be the least connected city in the entire United States, the City of Pharr. Some people saw that as a negative. I saw it as an opportunity. So, what did we do? We started with our colonias, we started with a pilot program with the school district and we proved the fact that it (the digital divide) was real,” Hernandez said.

“And now, our colonias, as we speak, are being built out and they have 500 megabyte speeds, upload, and download. I don’t even have that, right, because we are starting in the most needed areas first. Can it be done? Absolutely. But it is like the commissioner (David Garza) is saying as well, as community leaders you have to invest a little bit so that you can be ready because when that money comes through you can acquire maybe not all of it but at least a large chunk of it.”

Hernandez ended his comments by praising Hidalgo County for adding a wi-fi network in areas that were previously dead zones for cell phone reception.

“We are grateful that is being done. Everybody is doing their part. We just have to get there, all together. And sooner or later we will be able to connect with Brownsville, that will be the goal,” Hernandez said. 

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows the mayor of Brownsville, Trey Mendez, and the mayor of Pharr, Ambrosio Hernandez. Of all the cities in the Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville and Pharr have received the most plaudits for developing their own universal access broadband plan.

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the third a series of three features about broadband connectivity in the Rio Grande Valley. Click here to read Part One and click here to read Part Two.