Harlingen starting $4 million broadband project; Officials plan to tie neighborhoods to internet

HARLINGEN — About a third of the city’ homes have fallen into the digital divide.

Across town, about 6,650 of the city’s 21,451 homes lack internet service as more students are taking online classes and more residents are working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s a pretty big number,” Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said Tuesday.

Now, city officials are launching a $4 million project to bridge that gap.

“With a lot of jobs going remote, it’s going to be more important,” Gonzalez said.

Wednesday, city commissioners are set to pick a consulting firm to help officials draft a map aimed at expanding broadband coverage across town.

“One of the things the consultant’s going to do is figure out the best approach to getting broadband and Wifi throughout the community,” Gonzalez said. “We want to target neighborhoods.”

Following the map, officials plan to launch a $4 million project connecting the city’s neighborhoods to the internet.

“They’re going to design a layout for how this is going to work,” Gonzalez said, referring to the consulting firm.

Top three consulting firms

At City Hall, officials reviewed criteria including experience to pick the firms of Cobb, Fendley & Associates, the Foresite Group and Geeks Without Frontiers as the top three of seven broadband consulting companies presenting proposals for the job.

In a workshop Wednesday, the top three firms are set to make presentations before commissioners pick the finalist during a meeting tonight.

“The purpose of the feasibility study is to provide the city with the information needed to analyze, select and implement the most feasible, sustainable and innovative approach for expanding broadband access across the community,” Ana Hernandez, the city’s special projects director, wrote in the meeting agenda’s executive summary.

During the meeting, commissioners are also expected to enter into an agreement with the Harlingen school district, which plans to cover half of the consulting firm’s estimated $125,000 fee.

“The city of Harlingen wishes to partner with the Harlingen Independent School District Board of Education to make certain students in Harlingen have access to affordable and reliable Wifi-broadband access,” Gonzalez wrote in the executive summary.

Fiber optics or wireless

In their study, the consultants will determine whether the city’s broadband network will be made up of fiber optics, wireless technology or a mix, Gonzalez said.

Cost might be the big factor.

“It may be this whole issue is determined by cost,” Gonzalez said. “If you have a choice and can afford it, fiber is the best choice because it’s more reliable. There’s a big price difference. Fiber tends to be expensive because of the labor — laying cable in the ground, going through sidewalks and streets. But in some cases, doing fiber may not be an option in certain locations.”

For the job, wireless technology might be the better choice.

Proposals include turning the city’s street lights into Wifi hotspots.

In McAllen, that’s how officials connected the city to the internet.

“We know it works,” Gonzalez said. “It’ll take a lot of antennas to get it to all the neighborhoods. It’s expensive getting Wifi on every street light.”

Next year, officials plan to launch the $4 million construction project, funded through part of the city’s $21 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act.

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