Podcast Transcript: Bridging the Digital Divide: What Challenge Does Texas Face? (Part 2)

Note: Intersect Ed is best experienced as a podcast. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis missing from the transcript.

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Dr. Tibayan: Normally, when I have really to describe Presidio, I would say that this is closer to Mexico with regards to the Rio Grande River. It is actually only 2.58 square miles. It’s really small. Right now, the population based on 2020 is 3,951. It went down. In 2010, there were more than 4,000 people here. So there is a decline of 10 point something percent from 10 years ago.

If you want to go eat McDonald’s, you have to drive 86.7 miles. Then if you want to go to the nearest Walmart, that’s 150.1 miles. If you want to go to a city like El Paso, it’s 254 miles. If you want to go to the service center Region 18, which is Presidio’s part of Region 18, you have to travel for 241.8 miles. If you really have to describe Presidio to a lot of people, it is really isolated. It’s very rural.

Tessa: That voice belongs to Dr. Edgar Tibayan, the principal at Presidio Elementary School. Presidio is a tiny town located deep in West Texas. In his remote community, a lack of infrastructure leaves Presidio deep within the caverns of the digital divide.

Tessa: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Tessa Benavides, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. Our last episode focused on the inequities in affordability and digital skills that leave communities living within the digital divide. By establishing a State Broadband Development Office, House Bill 5 and Senate Bill 5 establish funding streams for communities looking to expand access to the internet.

This episode focuses on the communities hoping to close the gap between the haves and have-nots of the internet age. Presidio sits in that gap.

Dr. Tibayan: More than half of around 55% of our family here, they have less than ninth grade of education. The poverty level is 40%.

You have really to go beyond and then look at isolated places like Presidio. Because, if they are going to neglect places like Presidio, it will be very hard for us to move because we want our kids, the second- or third-generation kids here, to be able to go beyond high school. We want to lead to break that barrier that their parents got ninth grade. We want them to go to high school. We want them to go to college. We want them to be successful.

That’s our role as educators, to be able to let them know that you can break the poverty level if you’re going to go to school.

Tessa: Which during the pandemic has meant relying heavily on internet access, an often hard-to-come-by commodity in Presidio. Presidio ISD has stepped in where it can to help solve the digital divide for the community. They have set up hotspots across the city to provide free internet access and have provided every student with a Chromebook.

Still, as Dr. Tibayan noted — internet access in the home is often unattainable for families.

Dr. Tibayan: Even though we have hotspots, the families, the homes, they need really to provide themselves with connectivity to the internet. The average cost per Mbps, Residio is paying $1.54 per Mbps, compared it to New York, they only pay $0.32, or Chicago they pay $0.46, or Houston in Texas, they pay $0.28 per Mbps.

But here in our city, we pay $1.54. It’s double or triple or four times more expensive.

Tessa: The high cost of internet is quite often easiest explained as a simple supply and demand model. In the case of rural communities, a high demand for internet exists while there is a limited supply because there is a lack of infrastructure.

So is there a long-term solution to bridge the digital divide in rural communities?

In Ector County ISD, which serves the Midland-Odessa area of the Permian Basin, Superintendent Scott Muri is working to answer this question.

Superintendent Muri: Even our fourth graders understand the power and potential of having the internet in their home. They recognize what they missed, the learning opportunities that they missed because they didn’t have it last year or they currently don’t have it.

So not only does it provide an academic opportunity for our kids to connect with their teachers, for our kids to connect with their peers, for our kids to do research, for our kids to move at their own pace in the learning process, but it also provides opportunities for their families. We have many families, in fact, Ector County has the highest unemployment rate in the state of Texas right now. The gas and oil industry laid off many, many people. Our families were impacted by those layoffs, and those families didn’t have other opportunities.

For some of them, it’s because they didn’t have the internet in their home, so work opportunities that can exist because of the internet are limited when you don’t have that opportunity. Then just quality-of-life options don’t exist when you don’t have the internet in your home.

Tessa: Addressing this need for his community was a priority for Superintendent Muri before we even knew the term “COVID-19.”

When he began his role in mid-2019, Ector County ISD was academically the lowest-performing district in the state of Texas. As he and district leaders built a strategic plan, addressing the need for every student to have access to technology was at the core.

Superintendent Muri: Thirty-nine percent of our families either had no internet access in their home at all, or they had internet access that was low quality, low speed, just wasn’t effective for their purpose. That’s a large number of our students. So we had to do something about that.

Tessa: The group found their solution through SpaceX and the company’s technology delivering internet via satellite. They were able to bring together philanthropic dollars to help support a pilot program with SpaceX Starlink satellite that brings internet service to 45 rural families in Ector County.

Superintendent Muri: The technology is not available on the market yet. It is an emerging technology. So we’ll be a part of this testing. We’re excited to be able to close the digital divide for a group of students and families that today have no options, either because of limited income in their families, or they simply live in a location in which their options are not the kind of options that we need them to have.

Tessa: Hundreds of miles south from Ector County, in Brownsville, Texas, the southernmost tip of Texas, Josue Plaza is the founder of ConnectBTX, an organization focused on closing the digital divide.

Josue: Internet infrastructure in a community means you’re building for the future. You’re future-proofing your city. It is setting your community up for how internet speeds are going to be for the next 50 years. I will say that communities, there’s going to be two kinds of communities in our nation after this pandemic. It’s the communities that see this opportunity and say, oh man, if we don’t do this today, we’re going to be a ghost town in 20 years. Then, there’s the other community that’s going to be the ghost town. So I recommend we want to try to convince our community leaders to be proactive on this rather than the other option.

Tessa: In McAllen, Texas, another city in the Rio Grande Valley, Mayor Jim Darling put access to high-quality internet as a top priority for his community. After 2012, when the school district began providing laptops and tablets to every student, over the course of several years, he tried many different paths toward a solution but none panned out.

Mayor Darling: Our kids, in the meanwhile, were going to our community centers for Wi-Fi or libraries, but those things close at 9:00 or 10:00 at the latest. They would just sit around at Burger King until that closed or sitting outside of schools and use their Wi-Fi.

Some people wanted to do portable hotspots, and so they put buses in certain neighborhoods. That’s good, but it’s only how many buses can you do when the penetration was not significant? So we’ve kind of bounced around for a couple of years trying to figure it all out.

Tessa: The fact that all of the City’s red lights are connected via fiber optic cable allowed them to greatly expand service by attaching modules that transmit high-speed internet to them.

Mayor Darling: My biggest thrill is I drove my car around, my windows up, in those neighborhoods, and had my phone hooked up to Wi-Fi, and it never left Wi-Fi. Never lost it the whole time I went into some of the neighborhoods. It was thrilling for me. It was a big thrill.

Tessa: These examples are thrilling, but what about communities like Presidio where work like this is not happening yet? Is the internet a necessity just like electricity and other utilities? Here is Superintendent Muri again.

Superintendent Muri: Absolutely. Internet as a utility, I think, is critical right now and equity. High-speed opportunities and children that do not — purely from an equity perspective. Our own moral compass, doing what is right for our children, families. You know, that should drive us to ensure that every single family in the state of Texas, every Texan deserves this opportunity.

Tessa: Jordana Barton agrees that internet service is a necessity.

She is the leading expert on the digital divide in Texas.

Jordana: That is what we’re shooting for. Not pushing just these temporary quick fixes, but permanent infrastructure. We want people to experience the fact that we can solve this. We can solve it cost-effectively.

Are we going to live in that all the time, paying the highest cost of these devices? No, it’s false. It’s a false scarcity. We do not have scarcity. We have abundance, and we have the solution. It’s just, people need to know about it, and so, we’re trying to demonstrate how it can be done, because it’s technology, it’s the community coming together.

What the pandemic did was, yes, it was very persuasive. The things that I could talk about and try to help people see were just on the news every night. It didn’t require persuading anymore, now it required a solution. So we can do it. We have the tools. Low-income schools can have this infrastructure in place to cost-effectively meet the needs of the students.

Tessa: Josue in Brownsville agrees.

Josue: The pandemic has just exacerbated this problem. Communities that didn’t have a great internet infrastructure to begin with are now in a really precarious position. If these communities do not radically rethink the role of who should provide its residents’ internet infrastructure so that they can participate in school and have that safety where, okay, my only option was going in person, but if they have the flexibility where all of their residents, all of their children now can go to school, then they’re not inhibited, right, from this pandemic.

Tessa: Of course, solving the digital divide is about life well beyond the pandemic.

Josue: If these communities do not realize and do not radically rethink that role, these are communities that are going to be seeing really big declines in the next 20 years. It’s going to really stifle economic growth in these communities. Of course, with the city in decline, people are not going to move there. You’re not going to have good workforce talent. There’s going to be a brain drain on those communities. A city wants to be a place to foster a thriving community of a variety of industries, expanding imminent infrastructure, and allowing all of its residents to get access to affordable internet. It’s going to do really incredible things because you’re now empowering your population to create their own opportunities. If schools give access, the first step is getting them access to the internet, then you can build on that. You start teaching them all of these tools that are so necessary in today’s growing digital world. Once you start teaching them those tools, they will create their own opportunities in your community, and your community will thrive.

Tessa: For those on the outside of the work happening to bridge the gap between those with access to the internet and those without, the answer may seem simple. But the problem is expansive, and people’s lives have already been altered because of their place within the digital divide.

Jordana: It’s a profound problem. We saw the impact we have seen. We are in the middle of seeing the impact on people of color, low-income communities of the pandemic. They can’t socially distance like other people can. Right? They need the tools to order online. They need the tools to see their parents, elder parents online. They need to be able to do remote learning. They need to see their doctor through telemedicine.

It matters to the whole health of a society in a public health pandemic. Because it’s such an intersecting issue, that’s the thing. It doesn’t just affect education. It doesn’t just affect workforce development, it affects health outcomes and access to healthcare. It affects small business development, it affects all these areas of community economic development.

Tessa: With conversations happening about virtual education options for the future, we have to solve the digital divide — and that solution rests on solving infrastructure and access issues.

We must remember Dr. Tibayan and his students in Presidio. The solutions need to work for students in major metropolitan areas, as well as the students in the most rural communities of the state.

I’m Tessa Benavides, and this is Intersect Ed.

Today’s episode was written and narrated by me, Tessa Benavides. Our Sound Engineer and Editor is Brian Diggs, and the Executive Producer is Laura Mellett.

Thanks for listening to Intersect Ed. If you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved, head over to RaiseYourHandTexas.org.


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