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On the southern border of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, Pharr Texas is the home of the largest commercial bridge from Mexico into the U.S. Now, the city is working on building an equally impressive virtual bridge to every home in Pharr with the construction of a municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network.
The progression has been steady despite pandemic induced setbacks, as city leaders are determined to solve the connectivity challenges in Pharr by leveraging the assets the city already owns while taking advantage of the unprecedented amount of federal funds now available to help communities expand access to broadband. To that end, the city has created regional partnerships, completed a feasibility study, and launched a pilot project. Now, Pharr officials are moving ahead with the construction of a city-wide municipal network.
Wake Up Call in Rio Grande Valley
Pharr has a population of almost 80,000 people of which 94 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino with over 30 percent of families living below the poverty line. Their public meetings are often bilingual. But, it was in 2015 that the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported that the Rio Grande Valley was on the wrong end of the digital divide. The report also highlighted the impact that had on the communities in the region:
The study involved focus groups with colonia residents. One theme that arose from the conversations with residents was the lack of access to the internet. The report found that the digital divide was a factor preventing residents from accessing regional labor market opportunities. Additionally, the report described the challenges colonia students face in school because of their inability to complete homework assignments due to lack of internet service and computers at home.
When earlier this week ILSR caught up with Jordana Barton Garcia, author of the report, she explained that “colonias” are informal neighborhoods where people live with no (or limited) infrastructure. Residents are sold lots without existing infrastructure, from water to broadband.
While a national debate rages over immigration and the border wall, just 30 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Harlingen city officials are coming together to plan the building of a bridge – across the digital divide deep in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley.
When Harlingen (pop. 75,000) was founded at the turn of the 20th century, it established itself as a prominent commerce and transportation hub – the “Capital of the Rio Grande Valley” at “the crossroads of South Texas.” Over the years, thanks to its fertile delta soil, the cultivation of citrus fruit, grain, and cotton became a major part of the local economy. Today, however, the biggest industry in the second most populous city in Cameron County is healthcare.
As attractive as Harlingen has become to residents and visitors – with its extensive park system and tropical bird-watcher’s paradise (the city happens to be located where two primary avian flyways converge) – one thing the city lacks is adequate access to broadband, which is particularly acute among households with school-aged children.
Pandemic Spurs City into Action
That realization was the impetus behind a recent city commission vote to move forward with a feasibility study to determine how the city might build a broadband network and whether it should rely on fiber, fixed wireless, or a mix of deployment technologies to modernize Harlingen’s telecommunications infrastructure.
“What brought this to our attention was of course the pandemic,” City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez told Valley Central News. “When the school district had to go to virtual learning, we found out that there were students and some families that did not have access to (the) Internet.”