Many people now take internet connections for granted; these days, a simple cellphone is a key that opens gateways to entire worlds of information, communication and entertainment.
To many people the commonness of internet access — it’s part of most basic mobile phone plans and available as an add-on to cable television service — might lead some people to forget how new the technology still is, and how many people still don’t have it.
Fortunately, much is being done to address those shortages.
The Rio GrandeValley’s connectivity problems became evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many workers were asked to do their jobs at home and communicate via social media streaming programs. Students were asked to continue their lessons through online virtual classrooms. It quickly became obvious, however, how many people still lack basic access to the World Wide Web — and how increasingly vital it is. School officials nationwide learned that many children didn’t have the internet access — in many cases they didn’t have computers or web-capable phones — to join online classes.
The Valley emerged as one of the least-connected regions in the entire country. Thousands of families were found to live in rural areas or underdeveloped colonias where antennas, cable lines and other infrastructure to provide web access didn’t even exist.
In response, school districts across the region scrambled to provide tablet computers to students and find ways such as planting router-equipped school buses in neighborhoods to offer temporary web access so they could enter the virtual classrooms. Local city and county officials also worked to fill those needs, and communications companies recognized a shortage they could help alleviate.
Those efforts continue. The federal 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included $65 billion to expand web access to underserved areas such as the Valley. CameronCounty and other local entities have commissioned studies on how best to expand internet access to most if not all residents. The city of McAllen established Wi-Fi cells throughout its jurisdiction; Pharr, Brownsville and other cities are laying cables that can improve communications access to residents’ homes. Edinburg officials last week announced that free public internet service is now available at three city parks and the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library.
Many stores, malls, restaurants and other businesses offer free public internet access. Phone, cable and other communications companies have reduced the cost of commercial internet service drastically, enabling more people to acquire it.
All these efforts have helped remove the Valley from lists of areas that have the least internet connectivity.
To be sure, many outlying areas still are beyond the reach of many antennas, cables and other infrastructure that makes online service accessible. We trust that local officials will continue to work to address those needs.
No one wants another pandemic or similar public crisis to create the changes we endured during the COVID-19 pandemic. The work of many people has helped reduce the chances that future restrictions on public mobility will mean isolation for those affected.