VICTORIA, Texas — The University of Houston-Victoria Center for Regional Collaboration (UHV-CRC) sits at the center of Victoria, Texas — a town of about 67,000 people.
Three of the Lone Star State’s largest cities are exactly two hours away by car: San Antonio to the west, Austin to the northwest, and Houston to the east. In and around that space is a 12-region area the university is focused on helping through the center’s work.
In January 2020, ahead of the pandemic, Bob Glenn, president of UHV, said that the center needed to look at improving rural broadband for virtual learning opportunities.
“It didn’t take long for us to learn that broadband access was a critical need for our region,” said Donald Jirkovsky, director, UHV-CRC. “We were meeting with the Cuero Chamber of Commerce after schools had been shut down due to the pandemic. The mayor, Sara Post Meyer, started talking about this problem of a lack of broadband in rural communities. She mentioned noticing families were crowding the parking lot of the library late at night.”
It turns out they were trying to access the internet through the library’s Wi-Fi.
“Night after night and on weekends, students parked in the municipal library parking lot to complete their assignments," Meyer said. "The City made the decision to keep the Wi-Fi service on after hours. In addition, this rural community found many of its citizens checking in with their doctors in other towns via Zoom meetings. This telemedicine service has continued for our citizens to this day.”
It is a problem that didn’t surprise Heidi Shook, who serves as the senior administrative secretary at UHV-CRC and grew up in a small Michigan town.
“When visiting with one of our rural communities with the lack of reliable broadband, everything went down — if the internet went down, nobody could purchase groceries," she said. "You couldn’t even access your bank. In many ways, you are cut off from the world if your internet connection is lost. I have long felt that our rural communities need to have help with this issue, and that it is critical for them to have a voice.”
At the time, no one could have predicted how critical and urgent the need for better access would become.
“The coronavirus hit, and, all of the sudden, we began to really see just how many of our students in our region were not connected to the internet at home,” said Jirkovsky. “We were kind of lost on what to do.”
So, Jirkovsky reached out to Rick Rhodes with Texas Rural Funders (TRF) to help. The nonprofit was already working with Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas) to identify obstacles and solutions for expanding broadband (high-speed internet) access, adoption, and use to more communities — particularly in rural areas.
“Thanks to a funding commitment from TRF, we are working with 27 communities across Texas to develop technology action plans that are tailored to their unique needs,” said Jennifer Harris, state program director, CN Texas. “We are also working to provide guidance at the state level and better broadband coverage mapping to demonstrate the true need across the state.”
DeWitt, Lavaca, and Refugio counties are among the communities chosen to receive funding from the group for the initiative. CN Texas is in the process of gathering data for the three counties.
“We have long believed that access to the internet provides critical resources that can help people improve their quality of life,” said Harris. “The pandemic demonstrated how having broadband impacts so many things — from accessing health care providers and educational resources to helping our small businesses tap into larger marketplaces even if they have to shut down brick-and-mortar locations. Broadband access is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity for us all.”
A necessity that Jirkovsky points out also directly impacts public safety.
“I was with the Texas Department of Transportation for years, and this is critical for emergency management,” he said. “We recently had ice storms and then a hurricane, and the way that emergency management pushed out information was Facebook. That’s great, but we didn’t realize at the time how many families didn’t have broadband or couldn’t get it, so many were not getting the timely updates.”
“A better broadband service will benefit the city of Cuero during emergencies, as we saw many of the state agencies holding their meetings via Zoom throughout last year,” she said. “This is true now. Several statewide organizations also held their state conferences or regional meetings virtually.”
Shook addeds that part of the solution is to remember that we must prioritize connecting anchor institutions like our schools and libraries — especially in rural areas.
“If you don’t have an office space, the library is the only place to go. People in rural communities use the library to print and fax documents, use the internet, and so many other things,” she explained. “Our libraries provide access to important resources, such as telehealth, or even just make it possible for families to buy things they need. A lot of stores have shut down in our rural areas. We must prioritize this work and connect our rural communities so they can once again flourish.”
For more information about the center and the project, contact the UHV Center for Regional Collaboration at 361-485-4949 or email@example.com.