Getting connected: City hires broadband consultant

Brownsville is one of the very least connected cities in the nation in terms of broadband internet access, which affects everything from schools’ ability to offer classes remotely to the city’s capacity for attracting certain industries.

A unanimous vote by city commissioners on July 7 to approve a $155,000 contract with Birmingham, Ala.-based consulting firm Lit Communities is the first step toward getting the city up to speed on broadband, which is able to handle massive amounts of digital data. The company is charged with developing a Broadband Feasibility and Digital Inclusion Plan for Brownsville and delivering a timeline, ideally by the end of this year, for identifying and developing recommended strategies for implementation.

Building up the city’s broadband capacity is a big priority for the city’s public entities. The Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, Brownsville Independent School District, Brownsville Public Utilities Board, Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, Port of Brownsville, Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley each contributed $21,000 to cover the cost of the feasibility study, according to Ramiro Gonzalez, the city’s director of government and community affairs.

“ Every public entity in Brownsville is participating, and they are participating financially,” he said. “That goes to show you the interest from the community, and this is a community issue.”

A city commission committee selected Lit Communities out of four finalists, gleaned from a field of 11 consultants responding to a request for proposals, Gonzalez said. Lit Communities has worked with a number of cities, though Brownsville is probably its least connected contract to date, he said.

According to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Business Insider, Brownsville is ranked second in the nation in its lack of broadband access, with an estimated 44 percent of households without a broadband internet subscription and more than 17 percent of households without a computer. McAllen is ranked fifth, with more than 31 percent of households lacking a broadband subscription and 16 percent without a computer. Valdosta, Ga., is the least connected city in the United States, according to Business Insider.

Gonzalez said the broadband issue has taken on added urgency with the forced reliance on things like remote learning, remote working and telemedicine during the coronavirus pandemic. Part of the Lit Communities study will involve mapping Brownsville’s existing telecommunications assets that could be used to help develop broadband. Additionally, the study will consider how to price broadband services so residents can actually afford access, which is where the “digital inclusion” aspect comes in, Gonzalez said

“ What is that number that our community can afford? Sure, you’re going to have the businesses that can afford whatever, but on the lower end of the income spectrum, people might not want to pay $60, might not be able to afford $60, but they could afford $20,” he said. “How do you get to that point? That’s really what the hiring of these consultants and this plan is meant to do.”

Gonzalez stressed that the initiative toward broadband infrastructure isn’t a slight on the city’s internet providers.

“ They might be a part of the solution, but we are going to go through the planning process to identify what the best solution for Brownsville is,” he said. “It’s not anything against Spectrum or AT&T or any of the current providers. It’s really just about we don’t want to be on the top of the (unconnected) list, so how do we get off of it? That’s what this will tell us.”

When it comes to actually paying for implementing broadband infrastructure, there are resources available for assistance, Gonzalez said.

“ We know that this is a big issue across the country, so there is funding available at all levels of government to tackle this issue,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that it won’t require some local match. Maybe the solution isn’t necessarily that expensive. … We really don’t know what that answer is, but the process of this plan will allow us to figure out that answer.”