EDITORIAL: Connection

Brownsville broadband effort would benefit many residents

Brownsville officials have announced a goal of providing broadband internet access across the entire city. The city would benefit greatly from such a service.

We don’t know if the city is looking for a revenue stream or whether they’re willing to offer the service at a loss, but it’s worth a look.

Perhaps other Rio Grande Valley cities are considering the same thing; if not, we encourage them to monitor Brownsville’s efforts and weigh the benefits against the costs.

The city recently held a Digital Inclusion Planning Workshop that encouraged community leaders to support efforts to increase online accessibility for residents, specifically mentioning local students.

They might benefit most of all, as increasingly broadband access is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury, if only to access online research material. Teachers and entire schools have created online bulletin boards through which students can get assignments, schedules and communicate with the teachers and classmates. Parents are given an opportunity to create internet links that enable them to monitor courses and their children’s academic progress.

But the benefits would be widespread. Residents would be able to access services and information from city, state and government websites, as well as more personal matters such as checking office and store times and alerts. Many doctors now post patients’ medical information on secure databases where patients can see their medical histories, diagnoses and prescribed treatments.

Many Brownsville residents are missing out on such valuable services and information. A 2018 report by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, using information from the American Community Survey, ranked Brownsville as the “worst connected city” in the country, with 67% of households lacking broadband internet service.

The report focused on broadband service such as that provided by cable, digital subscriber lines and other home sources. It did not evaluate internet access through cellphone, satellite or other nonbroadband connections. Such connections often are limited many factors, such as signal strength or connection type. Some websites stream differently, with different options, on cellphones compared to larger computers.

This is not the city’s first foray into universal internet service. The city in 2006 issued $6.6 million in bonds to fund a project called Gentenet, which promised to create a citywide communications system for police, fire and other city departments. Once the signal covered the entire city, officials could share it with residents, thus offering internet access to all residents.

Other cities had tried similar efforts, however, and found that not enough residents subscribed to make the project profitable; they had do decide whether to drop the service or keep it as a subsidized community benefit, such as parks and mass transit.

Technological changes might create a different cost-revenue mix now, and Brownsville officials might decide that the service is worth supporting even if it doesn’t increase net revenue. Either way, it’s good that they are looking into the option in an area that needs greater connectivity.