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South Texas City Looks to Bridge Digital Divide

Officials in Harlingen, Texas, are considering a range of options to bridge the digital divide, including working with broadband service providers, teaming up with Cameron County and searching for grant money.

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(TNS) — After about two years of planning, the city's project aimed at bridging a digital divide that's swallowed about a third of households here is on hold.

Now, officials are considering a range of options including working with broadband service providers, teaming up with Cameron County and searching for grant money.

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

Teaming up with other cities struggling with bridging the nation's digital gap, city commissioners have passed a resolution requesting state lawmakers push for money to help fund the project.

"Right now, the project is on hold," City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said.

In 2019, a Census survey of the country's 185 large and mid-sized cities found 34.4 percent of Harlingen households lacked broadband connection, ranking the city second to the bottom, ahead of only Pharr.

"It's a complex issue," Gonzalez said. "To apply for jobs, you can do it on the internet. If you're a kid in class, you need access to the internet. Even businesses need it."

Weighing options

In 2019, officials planned a $4 million project, counting on taping into the city's $22 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act.

But a $100,000 study conducted by Houston-based consultants Cobb Fendley and Associates projected the project's cost would run far higher, estimating the cost of laying cable in town at about $10 million.

"The city is currently reviewing the options presented by Cobb Fendley," Commissioner Daniel Lopez stated.

At City Hall, officials are trying to determine whether to fund fiber optics expansion across town, extending access to neighborhoods or limiting connections to city buildings.

"The biggest decision to be made is which route the commission wants to choose — middle mile, last mile or only city buildings," Lopez stated, referring to options of laying cable within town or limiting it to neighborhood access. "Once that's decided, we will need to determine how to fund the project — city's general fund, grants, public-private partnership or a combination of all three."


Last week, commissioners passed a resolution as part of a campaign requesting state lawmakers push to fund broadband projects.

"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. The city understands that building, maintaining and operating broadband networks is extremely expensive, especially in non-metro and hard-to-reach areas, and that closing the digital divide will require the public and private sectors working together. The city encourages the Texas Legislature to direct state funds toward broadband deployment to ensure that all Texans have the connectivity they need to succeed in today's society."

Commissioner Frank Morales urged Gonzalez to continue searching for grant funding.

"He needs to try to find available options to see if we can provide this service," Morales said. "I know everything is sky-high, and it's unfortunate. It's not over. If the city really pushes for it, I'm sure we can come across some funding or assistance to get broadband off the ground. I'm confident we can find resources."

Teaming up with companies

As more companies lay cable across the area, more and more homes are taping in, leading officials to reconsider their options, Gonzalez said, adding officials here are also considering partnering with companies to boost broadband access.

"There are a lot of companies laying fiber all over the city," he said. "One thing we've got to consider is whether it's feasible for us. The more companies that lay fiber, the less feasible it is for us."

An option includes teaming up with Cameron County to help fund the broadband project, he said, adding the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation would consider helping to fund such a project.

At Cameron County offices, Dan Serna, the county's deputy county administrator, said a $175,000 study conducted by Cobb Fendley estimated the cost of providing broadband access across the county at about $100 million.

"Expanding broadband, especially to the unincorporated areas, can be complicated," Serna, the city's past city manager, said.

Now, he's requesting proposals from companies interested in working with the county on the project, he said, adding officials are set to open bids early next month.

Meanwhile, they're also searching for grant funding, he said.

© 2023 Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.