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Amarillo’s plan for broadband in El Barrio could be a playbook for other Texas communities without internet

 Teresa Kenedy, president of the Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee, right, and Angela Garcia, the group’s treasurer, stand in an unpaved alley in El Barrio. The pair hope to improve the condition of the neighborhood.
Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune
Teresa Kenedy, president of the Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee, right, and Angela Garcia, the group’s treasurer, stand in an unpaved alley in El Barrio. The pair hope to improve the condition of the neighborhood.

Texas has had trouble getting a state of 30 million residents online for years — even before the pandemic put a spotlight on poor broadband development.

From The Texas Tribune:

AMARILLO — Only a few blocks separate Amarillo’s lively, bustling downtown area from the city’s historic El Barrio district.

Originally developed in 1889 to house Mexican railroad workers, the neighborhood is now home to more than 1,000 families, businesses that have been there for nearly a century and rich Hispanic history.

As Amarillo has grown, the beloved neighborhood has aged. Cracked sidewalks surround homes that generations past have kept updated. Uneven roads at the busy intersection of 10th Street and South Arthur Street make it hard for residents in wheelchairs to cross and get to the grocery store. While much of the city has spotty internet, residents in El Barrio are almost completely disconnected.

“It’s an old neighborhood, but it’s a very strong one,” said Angela Garcia, a fourth-generation Barrio resident. “We’re built off the backs of the people that established El Barrio, and we want to keep it for more generations.”

The residents are determined to give current and future families more than the bare minimum. The Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee and Amarillo City Council have been working on a revitalization plan since 2018, and bringing broadband to the neighborhood is part of the mission.

A reliable internet connection is no longer a luxury — it’s become a key to existence. The simple act of being able to turn on a computer and go online can now be a necessity to seeing a doctor, buying a home, going to school and applying for jobs and financial aid for college, which can only be done online.

Establishing a new broadband network in Texas is a complex puzzle involving businesses, city governments, fiber cables and expensive equipment to carry it. Texas has had trouble getting a state of 30 million residents online for years — even before the pandemic put a spotlight on poor broadband development. Despite the state establishing a broadband office — it was one of the last to do so in 2021 — nearly aquarter of all Texans lack internet service.

The broadband office released its long-awaited development maps last month, which will mostly be used to identify areas of the state that are eligible for funding projects due to a lack of connectivity. Last month, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced the agency will receive $363 million in federal grants as part of the Bringing Online Opportunities to Texas program. This will increase connectivity to about 152,000 locations in the state, but the application process won’t begin until the spring.

Most places in Texas without internet look a lot like the El Barrio neighborhood. According to federally released maps and multiple studies, most Texans who don’t have high-speed and affordable internet are poor, live in rural communities and are predominantly Black or Hispanic. If Amarillo is successful in getting the El Barrio neighborhood connected, it could offer a new strategy to similar areas.

With a mix of working-class people in the heart of the Panhandle, Amarillo started making moves to change their broadband issues instead of waiting for the state — or private companies — to come up with a solution. The City of Amarillo reached a $24 million deal with AT&T to build a new high-speed network that will bring broadband to more than 22,000 locations in Amarillo. This includes new, affordable in-home connections for neighborhoods like El Barrio and free Wi-Fi in public places.

“We’re going to be on an equal playing field,” said Teresa Kenedy, president of the Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee. “Families can research what they want, play games together, maybe they’re looking for a house to buy. Whatever it is, they’ll be able to do that.”

“A historic project”

Garcia lives within a one-mile radius of her entire family, and she likes it that way.

“A lot of people here don’t really move because our family is here,” Garcia said. “We’re all close, and we don’t want to lose that.”

El Barrio has been built on pride, something that current residents have continued. More than 4,600 live in the neighborhood, and residents are mostly Hispanic. Many of the homes in El Barrio have been passed down through multiple generations, which is more affordable, and residents often stay because it’s the best option for their families.

“We’ve had these homes in our families forever, and it’s just a matter of keeping up with them,” Garcia said. “Sometimes you’re not able to or don’t have the means to, and that’s OK. That’s the way the world works and it’s nobody’s fault.”

The neighborhood does still want improvements, though, which is why the Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee was formed. The group consists of community members, residents and city planners. One of their first priorities was getting El Barrio internet service, which was also a priority for Amarillo and more than 200,000 people who call the city home.

The broadband deal was struck with underserved neighborhoods like El Barrio in mind. The city awarded AT&T the contract last summer, making it the first public-private partnership between AT&T and a city in Texas. The deal currently provides free, citywide internet through public Wi-Fi.

The city committed $2 million from American Rescue Plan Act funds as part of the deal. AT&T is funding the rest of the $24 million.

“This is a historic project, not only for the City of Amarillo, but hopefully a project the entire state of Texas can emulate,” Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson said. “Amarillo is taking the lead in providing free internet access to our entire community.”

Nelson added, “Many neighborhoods, such as the Barrio, do not have the same level of connectivity as other Amarillo neighborhoods. This program will help bridge that divide.”

But access doesn’t stop at fiber. Through a grant from the AT&T Foundation, the Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee will be hosting classes to teach residents about starting a business and digital literacy classes for adults and senior citizens.

“We cannot assume that people know how to use the internet,” said Kenedy. “So we have a full calendar of classes. They’ll be taught in English and in Spanish, and it’s all free.”

Kenedy said it’s important that the community can afford internet service, too. About 47% of residents in El Barrio make less than $25,000 a year, so Kenedy is hopeful that residents will be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program. The program aims to give low-income households discounted, or free, internet service.

“We want to be able to have free internet access or even affordable access for our families because this is how we communicate now,” Kenedy said.

It will take three years to complete the project, but it will be70% complete by 2024. The Barrio Neighborhood Planning Committee has been awarded grants through the Texas Department of Transportation and funds from the city to start the repairs on their roads and sidewalks, which will begin next year.

Disclosure: AT&T has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/07/texas-broadband-access-amarillo/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Jayme Lozano