The city of Brownsville’s project to create affordable fiber broadband access to residences and businesses citywide is officially underway.
At a Wednesday morning ceremony in city commission chambers, Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez and Brownsville Public Utilities Board CEO and General Manager John Bruciak signed an agreement with Brian Snider, CEO of Lit Communities, that will allow the fiber infrastructure to be completely built out.
The city commission at its July 19 regular meeting approved the public-private partnership between the city, LIT Texas LLC and its subsidiary BTX Fiber, “for the construction, operations and maintenance of city-wide broadband infrastructure, including but not limited to incorporation and approval of a Right of Way and Encroachment Agreement; Engineering, Procurement and Construction Contract; and Middle
Mile Connection Agreement and Grant of Indefeasible Rights of Use Agreement.”
“Middle mile” refers to high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data and connect local internet networks with global internet networks.
Mendez, speaking during Wednesday’s ceremony, said the city had committed to building the middle mile using nearly $20 million in federal funds made available to the city through the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act, but needed a partner capable of covering the $70 million cost to build out the last mile, the link to homes and businesses.
“We put it out there to see who was interested,” Mendez said. “All the internet service providers had an opportunity to be a part of it and to be partners with the city. They chose not to be a part of it.”
Enter LIT Communities, a company that helps communities set up their own broadband networks.
“Lit did a great job in trying to figure out where the needs were, mapping out what the speeds were,” Mendez said. “And what we found out was that the speeds that existed in the city were below standard, below what was being advertised, and really below what was needed for families to get connected and stay connected.”
Snider said the company sees fiber not just as an internet connection but a source of economic development, and credited Brownsville for being a community “willing to look at it differently.” Partnerships are key to Lit’s community-based business model, he said.
“If you don’t see something being done right, go do something different, and I think we’re building that here,” Snider said. “I know we’re building that here.”
He asked Brownsville’s residents and business owners to be patient while the network is built out. Project updates will be released on btxfiber.com, which is already live and to which business owners and residents will also be able to submit feedback on the project, Snider said.
Mendez credited former Brownsville governmental affairs director Ramiro Gonzalez with getting the project off the ground by convening a stakeholder group to push for it. That group includes the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, Brownsville Independent School District, Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, Port of Brownsville, Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“During the pandemic we saw just how important internet was, and it made the situation even more critical,” Mendez said.
Bruciak said BPUB is glad to partner with the city and Lit and that the broadband project will be “very beneficial,” in part because BPUB is about to undertake installation of an Advanced Meter Infrastructure — smart meters — for all of its electric, water and wastewater customers. The project will take 18 to 24 months and will coincide with construction of the broadband network, which will power the smart meter system, he said.
Bruciak said the new network will serve as a “digital backbone” allowing BPUB to improve reliability and service for all utilities, including during major weather events. The new system, in addition to other benefits, will allow BPUB to immediately see outages and which parts of the city are affected, he said.
In addition to BPUB’s smart meter investment, the utility is helping with right-of-way for the fiber infrastructure.
Mendez noted that Brownsville in 2018 and 2019 was named one of the least connected cities in the United States, though that will change thanks to the broadband effort, which he said became a top priority for him after he was elected in 2019 and realized how bad internet access was for Brownsville’s students.
“I’m happy to say we’re moving forward with a full broadband plan that’s going to connect all of our communities, provide accessibility and affordability for residents and businesses here in the city of Brownsville,” he said.