The following was published by the Brookings group on April 8, 2020
by Lara Fishbane and Adie Tomer
As COVID-19 requires more and more swaths of the country to shelter at home, broadband is more essential than ever. Access to the internet means having the ability to work from home, connecting with friends and family, and ordering food and other essential goods online. For businesses, it allows the possibility of staying open without relying on foot traffic and carrying out essential functions remotely.
Adjusting to life in a digital space is straightforward for some of us. But for households and businesses without a broadband subscription, life under quarantine is an entirely different picture. As part of a larger project around digital equity, we visited Texas’s Brownsville-Harlingen metropolitan area, a community with low rates of broadband adoption and spotty service. In Brownsville, it’s a challenge for students to keep up with school assignments, for the police department to upload reports, and for residents to maintain connections. They are not alone in these challenges, but we can look to this community to better understand the opportunities for overcoming barriers to broadband adoption.
Brownsville sits on the U.S.-Mexico border and is home to 423,908 residents, the majority of whom (89.8%) identify as Latino or Hispanic. The region has an overall poverty rate of 28%, and for those under 18, the poverty rate is 41.1%. The area also has a significantly lower broadband adoption rate than the rest of the country: Only half of all households have any type of broadband connection (compared with 85.1% nationally), and 11% of households only have a cellular connection.
Leaders in the region—including the city manager, the head of the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, and representatives from local health and housing centers—all know that to improve economic conditions, they need to increase broadband penetration, adoption, and use. To get there, they are capitalizing on the region’s already-strong network of trusted community members as well as the entrepreneurial spirit deeply interwoven within the region’s workforce.
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