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Bridging the Digital Divide in America: How “Pharr” Can you Go?

By Keith Martin
Published: May 15, 2023

When much of America shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Pharr, Texas was in dire straits. Like much of the surrounding Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of the state, residential broadband connectivity in Pharr was woefully scant. In fact, the Digital Inclusion Alliance ranked Pharr the worst-connected city in America, with nearly 60 percent of households lacking high-speed internet of any kind, including cellular. How do you keep up with work or studies when you can’t even get online?

For years, many families’ best solution was to buy a cup of coffee at McDonald’s and log onto the public Wi-Fi there; after the restaurant closed, students could often be found finishing their homework in the parking lot. When stay-at-home orders were issued in March of 2020, many of the city’s 30,000 students were left with nowhere to turn for Internet access.

Thankfully, a new municipal build is currently at work to ensure Pharr has the connectivity it needs so that its citizens have access to educational and economic opportunity. The city broke ground in 2021 on TEAMPHARR.NET, a city-owned fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network using Corning’s fiber optic solutions to bring broadband connectivity to all of its residents at affordable rates. Currently 85 percent complete, the project is a shining example to other municipalities searching for ways to bridge their own digital divides. It also embodies Corning’s commitment to help them along the way, as we work together to connect the unconnected.

Planning an approach

The Pharr government identified its connectivity situation as an urgent problem dating all the way back to 2015, but finding solutions proved difficult. Efforts began in earnest in 2018, when the city launched a pilot program to connect 50 families in the South Pharr area. But efforts to scale up the project floundered due to difficulty in securing funding.

Initially, Pharr planned on retaining ownership of the middle mile of fiber connectivity and leasing out the last mile to telecommunications companies. Instead, the city began exploring a different route: owning the network outright so that it could offer services to all residents. With an annual household income of less than $40,000, ensuring affordability of services was critical.

The city procured some funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, which allocated more than $25 billion for investments in broadband connectivity for underserved communities, and then issued revenue bonds to raise additional capital. The emergence of the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) made government subsidies available to residents to help cover the cost of the city-provided broadband service, making the plan financially feasible on all counts.

Laying the groundwork

Pharr began work on the first phase of its FTTH project in 2021.Along with Graybar, a long-time Corning distributor, the project team broke ground in September 2021 in the city’s least-connected neighborhoods, starting with 80 homes. The first home went online in January 2022, bringing broadband to a household with five school-aged children.

Since then, the city connected over 3,500 homes in South Pharr. Overall, the entire project is expected to comprise some 2.1 million feet—nearly 400 miles—of Corning fiber optic cable, making it among the largest municipal projects we’ve supplied in the region. With features designed to speed installation, Corning’s innovations helped reduce the burden of technician training and ease the process of delivering connectivity to Pharr’s citizens.

“It’s been a pleasure to work with Corning on this critical project to help bring broadband to one of the most underserved cities in America,” said Eddie Shamp, Manager of Broadband and Utility at Graybar. "Corning has provided a reliable supply of optical fiber cable, which has significantly contributed to the timing and success of this project."

A future-ready city

When complete, Pharr’s new FTTH network will provide its citizens with the tools to work, learn, and interact today and well into the future. The benefits of Corning network components over other solutions are numerous. Residents will have access to reliable network service that’s immune to issues like congestion, and its foundational cabling is limited only by the current speeds of service providers. As higher bandwidth becomes cost effective down the line, residents will only need to upgrade their endpoint equipment to take advantage.

Pharr citizens using the city’s service are already enjoying speeds that rival what’s available in even the largest American cities—and with ACP subsidies, they can get it at a fraction of the price it typically costs.

“With our new fiber-to-the-home network, our citizens are plugged into a new world of possibilities,” said Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, Mayor of City of Pharr. “We were fortunate to have a partner like Corning: not only did they provide the highest quality optical fiber cable for our network, but their engineers, products, and application expertise was also invaluable throughout the course of planning and executing the project.”

Bridging the digital divide

At Corning, we believe everyone should have access to high-speed fiber broadband, no matter where they live. Access to broadband connectivity is increasingly becoming a universal right, on par with electricity.

In addition to achieving the critical goal of ensuring that all citizens have access to the educational and vocational opportunities they need to thrive in modern society, projects like Pharr’s FTTH network can also help build a foundation for economic prosperity that benefits the entire population. According to economic models by Deloitte, a 10 percentage point increase in broadband access across the US could lead to the creation of more than 800,000 new jobs and over $180 billion higher economic output within a span of just five years.

Investing in connectivity is investing in people. That’s why I’m proud of Pharr’s efforts to bridge their digital divide. Their success demonstrates how a fiber-rich network can improve people’s lives – and transform a community.

To learn more about our FTTH solutions click here.

Keith Martin with Corning Optical Communications

Keith Martin
is Vice President of US Emerging Carriers. In this role, he leads Corning’s efforts to support the construction of the US Broadband networks that connect our homes with the digital world. His teams at Corning supports all of the Tier 2, Tier 3, and Emerging Carrier customers who operate networks in the United States. 

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