Cameron County signs agreement with broadband provider

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. and VTX1 Internet CEO Patrick McDonnell signed an agreement aimed at expanding high-speed internet services countywide during an official ceremony Monday morning, Feb. 5, 2024, at the Cameron County Courthouse/Oscar C. Dancy Building in Brownsville. (Courtesy: Office of Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr./Facebook)
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Expanding high-speed internet services countywide is the purpose of an agreement signed by Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. and VTX1 Internet CEO Patrick McDonnell during an official ceremony Monday morning at the Cameron County Courthouse/Oscar C. Dancy Building in Brownsville.

Per the agreement, VTX1 will spend more than $10 million of its own money installing broadband infrastructure to the areas of Bluetown, Lozano, San Pedro and South Padre Island south of the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway, including Isla Blanca Park. That’s phase one, to be completed within 120 days. Phase two will require seeking grant opportunities from state and federal sources to complete the countywide broadband expansion, estimated to cost around $200 million.

The project will not require a dime from county residents, Trevino said, noting that a feasibility study completed last year revealed that significant outside funding opportunities exist, while the county’s “digital divide” is gaping due to the high incidence of residents in economic distress.

Spools of cable used to house fiber optic cable sits on a parking lot of a VTX1 warehouse ready for deployment across South Texas. (Valerie Gonzalez | The Monitor)

“Even though things are looking better for Cameron County and the (Rio Grande) Valley, we still have a lot of families that are living at or below the poverty level,” he said.

McDonnell said public-private partnerships such as the one between VTX1 and the county are the way to loosen state purse strings, noting that broadband expansion in the county has bipartisan support.

“Contrary to all other issues that the government deals with, the internet is one that cuts across both sides,” he said.

Orlando Quintanilla, VTX1 chief operating officer, noted that Texas has received 3.3 billion in Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funds from the federal government. The money is part of $42.5 billion in funding to expand high-speed internet access nationwide, authorized by the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in 2021.

Another $1.5 billion has been set aside by the state through the Broadband Infrastructure Fund, created by voters’ passage of Proposition 8 last November.

As part of the agreement signed Monday, VTX1 will provide professional grant-writing services to apply for broadband expansion funds to carry out phase two of the project. Applying for the grants will be a fiercely competitive process, Quintanilla said.

“There’s no guarantee that anybody’s going to get any money, but being able to bring this partnership to the table enables us to be more competitive and be able to get there,” he said.

In any case, funding for phase two won’t be available before next year, Quintanilla said.

COVID underscored the county’s digital divide and the impact on residents, including students and those seeking online medical services, Trevino said. The partnership with VTX1 — which started as Valley Telephone Cooperative in 1952 — is aimed at making affordable high-speed internet available to all county residents, he said.

The cost of broadband through VTX1 will be $30 a month for all new and existing customers. Low-income households can apply to have the full cost reimbursed through the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Trevino said expanding broadband connectivity has been a top priority for the Commissioners Court.

“The pandemic shed light on the lack of broadband connectivity in our area and the disadvantage this created for our citizens and students,” he said. “This partnership with VTX1 is a positive step toward addressing the digital divide that exists in our area, and will ensure that our citizens have the necessary broadband connectivity they need for education, working remotely and telemedicine.”