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In Texas Border Town, Sharing IT Is a Way of Life

Shared network, data centers and public safety infrastructure make the impossible a reality in El Paso.

The sprawling community of El Paso, Texas, sits on the U.S.-Mexico border a short distance from the New Mexico state line. The city is a major point of entry into the U.S., with thousands crossing the border every day to live, visit and conduct business. The city’s size and geography create unique challenges from an economic and law enforcement perspective. Collaboration has been a major theme in meeting these challenges.

Two years ago, El Paso County and the city of El Paso entered into a shared services agreement that enables both governments to cost-effectively benefit from the latest technologies. City and county IT staff work very closely together, sharing expertise and infrastructure, said Peter Cooper, CTO for the city and county of El Paso.

Among the projects the city and county have tackled together are fully redundant data centers, an expansive network fit to serve the geographically dispersed community, and shared law enforcement systems and databases that have saved money across the board.

“The cooperation has yielded a lot of benefits,” said Cooper. “Many of these things would not have taken place if we had not been working so closely together.”

Many projects that have been accomplished in the community have also involved collaboration with other organizations that serve the community, including law enforcement initiatives and digital divide projects.

Digital Skills and Access

El Paso has a large population of low-income residents and recent immigrants who have little access to technology. Recognizing the importance of digital access for successful economic development, the city and county have worked with local organizations to help low-income residents gain access to broadband and acquire technology skills.

In 2006, Digital El Paso, a consortium of public and private organizations began building a pilot Wi-Fi network to bring broadband service to the poorest area of El Paso. The network is free to access and still exists today.

More recently, with the help of an $8.4 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) Public Computer Center grant, the city’s public library system is leading an effort to provide public access to computers along with training to help residents gain computing skills, use employment tools, prepare for the GED and citizenship, and improve their language skills. Using microwave technology, the shared city and county network is allowing these sites to exist and to provide training throughout the extended community.

“With the city and county sharing services,” Cooper said, “the city has built a large fiber network throughout the city, and what we’re doing with the microwave is extending the reach of the fiber network and actually broadcasting to a number of different buildings in the area.”

Nation’s Safest Large City

Despite the fact that El Paso adjoins Juárez, Mexico — a city notorious for violent crime — on the border, El Paso has been ranked by CQ Press as the safest city in the U.S. with a population of more than 500,000. The city’s location, however, creates distinctive challenges for law enforcement.

“The El Paso area has representation from virtually all federal law enforcement agencies as well as state, county and local law enforcement agencies of two states,” said Michelle Gardner, assistant chief of the El Paso Police Department. Communication and information sharing among agencies is key, she said, adding that it’s important as a matter of officer safety to know what’s happening across jurisdictional lines. “Our jurisdictional lines are in the middle of heavily populated areas and crime trends cross them without discrimination,” said Gardner.

The city and county support a number of technologies aimed at making law enforcement more efficient and giving agencies rapid access to the information they need, including a shared fingerprinting system used by all area law enforcement agencies and a shared records management system.

A recent upgrade to the 911 computer-aided dispatch system and an ongoing effort to outfit vehicles with enhanced connectivity will improve vehicle locator functions and add more wireless capabilities.

Shared Data Center

In another collaborative effort, the city and county have developed redundant data centers that support both governments’ operations. One data center is housed in a county building; the other, an HP Performance Optimized Data Center that was delivered about a month ago, is located across town on a separate power grid, Cooper said. The data centers are highly virtualized, and if one data center went down, the other would take over.

Together, the two governments have been able to build a data center operation that neither could afford on their own, said City IT Director Miguel Gamino Jr. Cooperation isn’t just about savings, he said — it’s made things possible that wouldn’t have been feasible otherwise. For example, Gamino said, the risk mitigation and redundancy provided by the new data center arrangement are of great benefit to the city and county regardless of the money saved and wouldn’t have happened under other circumstances.

“For either side to go back and ask for $8 million to build a redundant data center would be, I dare say, laughed at. It would just be so outside the context of what’s probably possible,” said Gamino. “We’ve been able to accomplish pretty significant things in maybe what are otherwise challenging times, in large part because of the cooperation.”