Harlingen, Texas Pauses Municipal Broadband Plan Citing High Costs

Harlingen TX city seal

Officials in the South Texas town of Harlingen say they’ve put their plan to deploy a municipal broadband network on hold after projected costs ballooned well beyond original estimates.

Originally, Harlingen officials had hoped to construct a $4 million fiber network to shore up broadband access to the city’s unserved and under-served populace, using a portion of the city’s $22 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

But a $100,000 study conducted by Houston-based consultants Cobb Fendley and Associates suggested a more realistic price tag would be closer to $10 million, forcing city officials to reconsider their plan.

"We were hoping to get it rolling but we ran into a few hurdles along the way," City Commissioner Ford Kinsley recently told GovTech. "We're looking for some sources other than what we originally thought."

A 2019 census survey found that nearly 35 percent of Harlingen’s households (7,887 of 22,901) lacked any broadband access whatsoever, positioning the city as second worst in the state behind Pharr, Texas, which recently built a municipal fiber network to bring affordable connectivity to its city residents. Harlingen school district officials also say they found that 900 students' homes lacked Internet access as of 2020, hampering city education standards.

Harlingen students

The majority of the rest of the city’s residents are served by one or two providers, resulting in spotty access, high prices, and sluggish speeds. As with so many U.S. markets, the Covid home education and telecommuting boom drove home the need for the kind of affordable, uniform broadband access regional monopolies long failed to deliver.

Telecom industry backed groups, like the AT&T funded Taxpayers Protection Alliance, had taken aim at the project in local editorials, downplaying local market failure and falsely implying that local city leaders were being misled by out of town consultants. Similar disinformation campaigns are popping up across the country, including most recently in Bountiful, Utah.

Decision Making key on laptop

Officials say they aren’t entirely certain what they’ll do next, but are weighing a variety of options, from striking public private partnerships with existing local broadband providers, to teaming up with similarly frustrated neighboring Cameron county, where the same consultant estimated it would cost $100 million to deliver broadband to all unserved residents.

In Vermont, similarly flustered municipalities are increasingly bonding together in Communications Union Districts (CUDs) after the state legalized their formation in 2015. Such coalitions often make broadband deployments more financially and logistically tenable than going it alone.

While they ponder next steps, Harlingen city officials have passed a resolution urging the state legislature to quickly drive looming infrastructure broadband grants toward underserved and unserved communities.

"High-speed internet access, or broadband, is essential in our increasingly digital world," the resolution states. "The city recognizes that broadband networks enhance economic, educational and healthcare outcomes. The city acknowledges that too many Texans, or 25 percent of our residents, still lack access to the broadband connections required to fully participate in and benefit from today's educational, professional, economic and civic opportunities.”

Meanwhile, the Texas Broadband Development Office (BDO) is asking the public for input on internet accessibility, affordability and usage to help inform the state’s evolving Texas Digital Opportunity Plan.