The next step in moving Brownsville away from the bottom of the digital divide table is to conduct a comprehensive survey on just how bad the situation is.
Lit Communities has been hired by the City of Brownsville to conduct the survey, which is titled Bring Better Broadband to Brownsville.
“This is going to be the primary way we are going to capture the needs here in Brownsville, whether you are a resident or a business,” said Rene Gonzalez, chief strategy officer for Lit Communities.
Gonzalez is a Brownsville native.
“This is our demand aggregation platform. It is basically the survey portal we have created to explain to the community what we are doing and how we are trying to get it done,” Gonzalez said.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Brownsville is one of the least “wired” communities in the nation. This unenviable title prompted Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez to make the digital divide one of his top issues at his first State of the City address.
Gonzalez, announced details of the survey on a webinar hosted by the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce last week.
The moderator was Esmeralda Villarreal, president of the Brownsville Chamber. Also appearing on the webinar were Mayor Mendez and Ramiro Gonzalez, director of government and community affairs for the City of Brownsville.
Mendez explained that a partnership has been formed to address the digital divide issue by key stakeholders, such as the City of Brownsville, Brownsville ISD, Texas Southmost College, the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, and Brownsville Public Utilities.
“Most of us on this chatline kind of take the digital divide and broadband connectivity for granted,” Mendez said. “We are fortunate to have it (internet connectivity) as part of our daily lives. But, 67 percent of our community lacks the access to internet connectivity. Think about that. Two thirds of our community does not have access to the internet at home.”
Villarreal said she knows how unwired the Brownsville community is because staff from many local companies drop by her office to ask if they can scan a document.
According to its website, Lit Communities is a “forward-thinking builder and operator of next-generation network infrastructure and a consultancy that guides communities across the country through the complicated process of deploying their own open application fiber optic utilities.”
The company believes that by separating the network infrastructure from the services provided on it, “a more resilient and consumer-friendly environment is created.”
The company adds: “This approach makes otherwise prohibitively expensive networks feasible to build in communities of all sizes.”
The Bring Better Broadband to Brownsville study is slated to be officially launched on Aug. 26.
Rene Gonzalez said a website is being launched to coincide with the study.
“The partnership and how it came together, the benefits of fiber optic connectivity and what it does and how that differs from traditional hardware infrastructure,” would be explained on the website, he said.
Rene Gonzalez said residents and business owners living in the catchment area would be encouraged to enter their address on the website. They would be asked how they are using the internet, what the current download speeds are, how much they are paying for broadband and how satisfied they are with the speed, reliability and price of the service.
“We also want to know whether what you have at the moment adequately supports what you want to do,” he said.
Gonzalez said there will also be some hypothetical options given. If a better internet service was provided, would people sign up for it. “We want to understand what the needs are, in order do a financial model and projection,” he said.
Gonzalez said it is important to hear from those who are not subscribing to a broadband service.
“What are the reasons? We want to know. Is it because you do not have access? Is it because it is unaffordable? Is it because you needs a device? It is basically the beginning of us being able to explore really more the digital divide issue.”
Gonzalez said Lit Communities also wants to capture the level of proficiency of Brownsville residents for using the Internet. “If you cannot apply for a job online, if you can’t access a word processor, that is going to affect your ability to go participate in the local workforce.”
Gonzalez said help can be brought to Brownsville in the form of nonprofit organizations that specialize in digital literacy.
He added that the survey can be completed in Spanish and that a Spanish language version of the website has been created.
He noted that this is first time Lit Communities has had to create a full Spanish language platform for a community it has partnered with.