Harlingen, Texas Looks to Build Bridge Just North of the Border

While a national debate rages over immigration and the border wall, just 30 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Harlingen city officials are coming together to plan the building of a bridge – across the digital divide deep in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley.

When Harlingen (pop. 75,000) was founded at the turn of the 20th century, it established itself as a prominent commerce and transportation hub – the “Capital of the Rio Grande Valley” at “the crossroads of South Texas.” Over the years, thanks to its fertile delta soil, the cultivation of citrus fruit, grain, and cotton became a major part of the local economy. Today, however, the biggest industry in the second most populous city in Cameron County is healthcare.

As attractive as Harlingen has become to residents and visitors – with its extensive park system and tropical bird-watcher’s paradise (the city happens to be located where two primary avian flyways converge) – one thing the city lacks is adequate access to broadband, which is particularly acute among households with school-aged children.

Pandemic Spurs City into Action

That realization was the impetus behind a recent city commission vote to move forward with a feasibility study to determine how the city might build a broadband network and whether it should rely on fiber, fixed wireless, or a mix of deployment technologies to modernize Harlingen’s telecommunications infrastructure.

“What brought this to our attention was of course the pandemic,” City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez told Valley Central News. “When the school district had to go to virtual learning, we found out that there were students and some families that did not have access to (the) Internet.”

Harlingen city commissioners opted to hire the Houston-based civil engineering firm ConnFendley to conduct a $100,000 feasibility study, the cost of which is being split by the city and the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District (HCISD).

HCISD’s Networking Coordinator Jaime Reyes told Valley Central News that at the onset of the pandemic 10 percent of the student body did not have home Internet access. Even now nearly two years later, 6 percent of the student population still does not have Internet service at home.

The Problem of Affordability

According to the 2019 Census' American Community Survey of 185 large and mid-sized cities, nearly 8,000 Harlingen households, or just over 34 percent of the nearly 23,000 households in the city, did not have access to wireline broadband at speeds of 23/3 Megabits per second. Harlingen was found to be second only to Pharr, Texas as the least connected community of the cities surveyed. Even when it came to wireless connectivity, the survey found, Harlingen ranked fifth from the bottom.

Though the city is served by AT&T and Spectrum (who both provide wireline connectivity) and T-Mobile (who provides fixed wireless service), the widespread lack of broadband access in Harlingen city officials attribute to the challenge of affordability. “The problem is people can't afford high-speed Internet," Sergio Mujica, the city's technology director, told GovTech.com in October.

‘All Options’ in the Mix

As the feasibility study has yet to be completed, city planners have only a preliminary vision of what kind of broadband infrastructure they will ultimately settle on.   

The current thinking, according to City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez, is that whatever network the city decides to build, the city would own the infrastructure, or at least the fiber assets the city intends to deploy to connect municipal buildings, the schools, and commercial centers in the downtown area.

“My hope is for us to actually own, to have fiber in the ground that we own, so we wouldn’t have to rent it from anybody else anymore,” Gonzalez told Valley Central News. “We can have that to all of our facilities (and) to all of our schools in town, so that would be ideal.”

Although the city is still months away from any kind of network construction, sometime this year the hope is to get started on the core network using $4 million of Harlingen’s $21 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

But, as GovTech.com reports, in residential neighborhoods, city officials are leaning towards the deployment of wireless technology and using the city’s street lights to enable Wi-Fi hotspots, largely because the construction of a citywide fiber-to-the-home network may not only be cost prohibitive but would also require ripping up roads and sidewalks.

"We're not going to be providing high-speed Internet," Gonzalez said. "If you just want basic service, you can rent from us. But you won't be able to stream movies on this. There's going to be people who want to keep their service provider."

With that in mind, the city's special projects director Ana Hernandez said:

We specified to keep all options open. At the end of the day, we want to pick the most cost-effective option. The cost will determine what option we'll pursue.

It’s worth noting here that street-based Wi-Fi often has trouble penetrating buildings in strong enough fashion to be practically useful. This is especially true of apartment buildings and other multi-dwelling units. In our view, it would be better for the city to consider using fiber to connect public housing units and extend robust connectivity to city residents who would benefit the most.

Balancing Upfront Costs with Long-term Pay Off

While it is certainly prudent for the city to carefully consider costs, community broadband advocates should see to it that upfront capital costs are not the sole focus of consideration as different technologies deliver different long-term results. It is certainly possible that high-capacity wireless networks can deliver what Harlingen citizens currently need. However, fiber-to-the-home networks are considered the “future proof” gold standard for good reason.

While deploying fiber is almost always the most expensive option in terms of upfront capital costs, it is the only technology on the market that has the capacity to handle rising broadband bandwidth demand both today and for decades into the future, most crucially as it relates to the upload requirements of modern applications. Also, in comparison to other broadband technologies, fiber is easier to operate and has lower life cycle costs, which makes fiber networks less costly to maintain in the long run.

In any case, we will continue to track the progress of Harlingen’s efforts as the city embarks on a laudable effort to tear down the walls separating the digital haves from the have-nots just north of the border.

Header image courtesy of flickr user Steven R. Shook, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Inline image of Harlingen students in auditorium courtesy of Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, Public Domain Dedication

Inline image of Raul Esperaza Sanchez Mural in Centennial Park courtesy of flickr, attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Inline image of city logo courtesty of the City of Harlingen