With Ramiro Gonzalez and Felipe Romero, City of Brownsville

 

NCC: Could you start by telling us a little about Brownsville, Texas?

City of Brownsville: Brownsville is the 16th largest city in Texas. Our population is about 185,000 give or take. For our broadband landscape, we have some internet service providers that offer broadband and internet services here in town. I’d say maybe two years ago we were at the top of the “Least Connected Cities in the United States” list. So for us that wasn’t good news obviously. And it’s something that we decided to set out to change. 

We’ve been working on a broadband plan over the last year. What we set out to do was take our name off that list and put ourselves on another list, which is one of the most connected cities in the US. So we’re working together with a consultant who’s done this sort of work before to come up with a broadband plan. That’ll let us know where the fiber is needed, how we can create this network, and how to make it available to our residents and businesses here locally.

What are some of the largest connectivity challenges your community has been facing?

The biggest issues are accessibility and affordability. We are actually one of the poorest communities in the United States. When you mix the economics with connectability issues, you’re going to have folks that just can’t afford it or have no access to the internet itself. The COVID pandemic has shown us just how valuable it is to be connected. We’ve seen it with our school districts, businesses, and remote working and teleworking. Really it still comes down to accessibility and affordability and those are some of the biggest priorities for us in our plan to make sure that broadband is citywide and it’s accessible by anyone, and that it is affordable to different economic levels. 

Do you all see broadband adoption as a barrier for your community?

There’s definitely going to be a part of our community that’s going to need help with adoption. I think the bigger issue though is affordability. I think once they have the service they’ll learn how to use it, just like Facebook. We see a lot of folks that are on Facebook now that we may not have expected to be on it years ago. I think that learning how to use devices will come. But the priority certainly is actually having the service and making it affordable. 

One of the third issues is also symmetrical speed. The current providers can provide a lot of download speed, but they can’t provide a lot of upload speed. Our surveys basically tell us, we have an average 12 Mbps upload around the city. So if you think about it in a COVID environment, you have two parents and two kids all on Zoom. Well, that ain’t gonna cut it. If the future is virtual, we have to improve our symmetric services so they are just as good as download. We want to be a city of the future, so we need that.

What do you want other communities, both urban and rural, to know about connectivity?

I think that  other cities in the United States need to be looking at how they can get themselves better connected. We’re seeing the value of being connected. We’re having this conversation now because the future of our country and the future of the economy is going digital. Communities that are not connected are being held back. We’re starting to see a bigger economic divide with not only resources, but also opportunities.

You see that a lot of rural communities, specifically, are being left behind because they don’t have this access. So I would encourage other officials and members of Congress to really look at their area and assess the overall connectivity and determine what it is that their constituents need. They must work toward getting them access and getting them connected. I would encourage everybody to take a hard look at this and really encourage folks in Washington to make funds available for connecting communities like ours that are economically disadvantaged. We’re taking it upon ourselves to get this done, but I would suggest in the future that our lawmakers look at other ways to support this.

What do you all think about the myth that if you’re an urban community, everyone is connected?

That’s definitely not true. I think some of that has to do with economics and educational levels and all sorts of factors that sometimes people take for granted. It’s a reality for us in Brownsville. It’s something we’ve overcome. It’s something that, once we get this done, is only going to help us move forward as a community and put us on the map take us off the least connected cities list.