I’ve lived my entire life in the Rio Grande Valley. I was born and raised in Brownsville, graduated from Brownsville High School, attended college here, and I’ve served as a police officer in Cameron County for the past 20 years.
A lot of things have changed in the Valley since I was growing up. One thing that hasn’t changed is access to reliable internet. As the rest of the country has been revolutionized by broadband WiFi, many communities in the Rio Grande Valley are among the least connected in the entire nation.
According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, just 57.4% of residents in Brownsville-Harlingen have broadband access in their home. That number is even lower in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission (55.4%) and Laredo (51.8%). I work in many communities, particularly colonias outside of Brownsville, where families not only lack access to the internet but to cellular phone service as well.
Why does this matter? There are lots of reasons related to economic opportunity and public safety. But one of the most tragic is the impact on students, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You see, law enforcement might be my day job, but my most important job is being a parent. My two children, one of whom has special needs, attend IDEA Public Schools in Brownsville, along with many students from communities without access to reliable internet. IDEA’s survey of its families found that 7,700 students do not have internet access separate from a smartphone and that most students did not have access to a laptop computer. This means that when the pandemic hit, a lot of kids weren’t going to be able to participate in remote learning unless our community took action.
Local school districts have stepped up. IDEA distributed laptops and mobile hotspots to families. IDEA, South Texas ISD and La Joya ISD outfitted school buses with internet hotspots that many families could log on to at once. McAllen ISD partnered with local government to create hotspots across the city.
But there is a limit to what schools can do alone. Without government intervention, some families will struggle because their community lacks access to broadband internet.
That’s why I’m proud to join with more than 1,000 other Texas families to advocate for an expansion of the universal service Schools and Libraries Program, also called “E-rate.” E-rate provides funding to make internet access more affordable for schools and libraries.
Both the House and the Senate are considering bills that would add up to $4 billion to E-rate. Our campaign has already garnered more than 1,000 petition signatures to Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Texas’ House delegation. Even in today’s polarized Washington, we believe this issue should be one where Democrats and Republicans can come together, because families across rural America will benefit.
As a proud, lifelong Brownsville resident, I know we can get this done. Our community is resilient and hardworking. We support each other and believe everybody should have a chance to succeed.
Now, as a community, we need to step up in the face of adversity and make sure that our children can get the education they deserve, even while our community is staying physically apart. In 2020, access to the internet should not determine your future.
Victor Leos Brownsville