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'Closing The Digital Divide': Connecting The Least Connected In Texas

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Teacher Barry Glasser works with his students in the library at Southwest Early College H.S.

When Brandon Marquez has a school research paper, the junior at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Southwest Early College High School hunkers down in the school library. When that closes at 5 p.m., his mom will drive him 20 minutes to the Pharr public library, where he can work on a until 9:30 p.m, or until he hits the two-hour limit on public computers.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
From left to right: Yasha Alaniz, Angel Martinez, and Brandon Marquez.

“When you have like limited time, you have to go quickly and sometimes you don’t do the work correctly,” Marquez said.

If he still has work to do, he goes to a fast food restaurant with free Wi-Fi. There’s a Jack in the Box near the apartment where he lives in Las Milpas, a neighborhood in south Pharr.

“You just buy a soda or a burger,” Marquez said, “just to have that time there.”

Marquez is in the gifted and talented program, and his teacher, Barry Glasser, said he gets good grades. That’s despite being one of the tens of thousands of students along the border with no internet access in their homes.

Credit Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas' "Closing The Digital Divide"

The Texas-Mexico border is one of the least connected in the U.S. A map from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas shows border counties bathed in bright red, meaning less than 60 percent have home access. It’s a distinction shared by the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, other parts of the country with pernicious poverty.

But that may change. This small city — just a handful of miles from the border — is trying to break up the dark red line of disconnectedness that plagues low-income border communities.

In December, Pharr started connecting the homes of 50 PSJA students to broadband internet for free as a year-long pilot program for something much larger.

With textbooks going online, students are asked to submit homework through the web platform Blackboard because being able to participate in online discussions is a necessity.

“I would equate it to 100 years ago trying to get electricity and telephone to everyone’s homes,” District Superintendent Daniel King said.

Pharr has been routing basic infrastructure to former colonias for the past 30 years.

Colonias are neighborhoods that developed along the border, lacking basic infrastructure like paved roads, water and indoor plumbing. Pharr has absorbed many into the city, addressing infrastructure issues along the way.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

Internet is the thing many colonia residents are still waiting on.

“It’s intermittent; it’s not available in all areas and there’s a cost factor also,” King said.

One former colonia known as Las Milpas is now the focus of the Pharr broadband pilot.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Drew Lentz holds up a wireless receiver and router.

Installing that free Wi-Fi is Drew Lentz and his company Frontera. Lentz grew up in a colonia in the nearby town of Mercedes.

“Colonias are tough,” said Lentz, as he drove through Las Milpas on a February afternoon, about some of the homes as well as some of the residents. “I just got a really nasty look from that guy with tattoos all over his neck.”

Lentz, in a white Ford F-250, drives past houses that could be found in any middle class Texas neighborhood, alongside abandoned and ramshackle ones. On one street, a dog and chickens run freely past a small grocery built into a house.

Nearly 70 percent of Las Milpas residents use federal food assistance and nearly half live under the federal poverty line, according to the census.

“Here’s one up here on the corner,” he said, pointing to a tan home.

A three foot metal arm protrudes from the house. On the end hangs a wireless receiver. It’s a flat, rectangular piece of plastic about half the size of an iPad.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

Frontera installs the receivers that all point back to a transmitter mounted on a tower at the nearby fire station. The transmitter can power the internet of 400 or more homes. The The city provides the internet for free. The school district provides free web devices like tablets and laptops.

While it sounds like a good deal to Lentz, he says it has been difficult getting parents to talk to him about signing up.

“For whatever reason, it may be their immigration status; it might be a warrant status or maybe there’s a language barrier that can’t be bridged,” he said.

Another challenge his installers face is the physical structure of some of the homes.

“The wood on the house was so bad we had to use different screws and bits to secure it to the masonry,” he said about a recent install.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas thinks that there is a way to help colonias like Las Milpas on issues ranging from access to health care to banking to job training and education, and it’s by connecting these homes to the internet.

“This is an area we can intervene and have a major impact on all areas of development,” said Joanna Barton with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

She, too, grew up in a colonia like Las Milpas, and for the past few years has been studying them.

Three years ago, she was doing research for the Fed on how to improve the colonias. Public meeting after public meeting she kept hearing the same thing. She was trying to talk to them about roads and water, but “every county I went to, the parents were talking to me about their kids not having internet and how it was limiting their children’s education,” she said.

These first 50 homes in Pharr are just an opening salvo, she said.

According to public documents, the city is planning something much bigger. With the help of the federal reserve, banks like BBVA Compass, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the school district wants to build its own fiber-optic network. They would connect 19 city buildings, 25 PSJA schools, two charter schools and a public library.

Once connected and strategically placed near low-income neighborhoods, the city can expand free Wi-Fi offerings and explore leasing the cable to internet providers who can sell low-cost internet to these communities.

It’s what’s called a middle mile project, and estimates for completing and operating it range from $3.5 million to $5.71 million, an engineering study stated. This doesn’t take into account potential revenues from this infrastructure. It wasn’t immediately clear where this money would come from. The feasibility study was paid for by a grant from BBVA Compass, a bank with many branches along the border.


All Of The Above

Since 2016, the federalLifeline Program has offered internet service providers like Spectrum money to provide broadband service tolow-income people. It does for some residents in Las Milpas. The future of that program has been thrown into disarray by proposals to limit, or some say end the program, by Federal Communications Commission Chair AjitPai.

Barton said she and others working on digital inclusion will push Lifeline, while it exists, as well as free Wi-Fi and these city-owned middle-mile projects wherever they can.

“It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all where google fiber is going to come in and provide fiber to the home for all the colonias or all the neighborhoods in Pharr,” she said.

UTRGV, the Fed, and many neighboring cities and school districts have formed the Digital Opportunities for the Rio Grande Valley to connect the border region with broadband. If Pharr is a success, they want to replicate it to every Colonia across the valley, Barton said.

“It covers the border — hundreds of thousands of people,” she said.

And if it can be tackled on the Texas-Mexico border, Barton sees no reason it can’t be done in rural Minnesota or Appalachia.

Back at Southwest Early College High School, Brandon Marquez hopes his home will be included in the free broadband.

When asked what it would mean to him, he said, “It would be like getting a gift.”

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive


Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org