The University of Texas-Pan American joined with Valley Telephone Cooperative, Inc. Oct. 25 to announce a $15.7 million grant the cooperative received from the Department of Commerce to help fund a fiber optic network connecting the University with 24 other educational and research sites in the region.
The Rio Grande Valley Med/Ed Network will include the placement of more than 150 miles of fiber optic cable throughout Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties. Co-applicants and anchor institutions include UTPA, University of Texas at Brownsville, South Texas College, Texas State Technical College and the University of Texas Health Science Center.
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said research provided by the University's Information Technology division indicates UTPA will save $6 million over the life of the project. He said the network will also enhance distance learning options and result in tremendous research possibilities for the students.
"It will allow them to do research, the best research that is available, just like at Austin or College Station, or anywhere else," Nelsen said. "This fiber optic network will serve as the telecommunication backbone for the future of UT Pan American's research and education facilities."
George Bennack, associate director for Business and Rural Development in UTPA's Office of Community Engagement, said the University also contributed to the initial development of the project, including surveying the need for greater broadband capacity in the region on a related project, and helping to provide information necessary to submit a competitive grant. Funding was provided by the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). BTOP is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Total project costs are $22.4 million. Valley Telephone Cooperative, Inc. provided a matching contribution of $6.7 million - 30 percent of the total project cost. The network will be owned and operated by the cooperative's transport subsidiary VTX Communications.
Rosie Cavazos, who represented the Office of Congressman Rubén Hinojosa at the announcement, said the project is projected to benefit more than 300,000 people and more than 17,000 businesses and community institutions in the region.
"With these new infrastructure investments we will be able to attract new businesses into our region and create good paying jobs for our citizens," she said. "This grant will allow us to continue the transformation of the Rio Grande Valley into a high tech participant in the global economy."
The Valleywide fiber optic loop that will run from Brownsville to Rio Grande City and back will provide each institution in the network 20 fiber optic strands; each strand can transport multiple10 gigabit per second lambdas, or light streams of information. Dave Osborn, the cooperative's CEO and general manager, said the real value is in what the optic fiber network enables.
"For the first time in the Rio Grande Valley institutions of higher learning will enjoy technological parity with some of the largest and most prestigious universities and institutions in the country. The tiny strands of fiber, literally the width of a human hair, will enable internet speeds that most Texas colleges are still dreaming about," he said.
Osborn described how it will allow the transport of large amounts of high definition video by universities and enable healthcare institutions to send and receive X-rays, MRI's and other diagnostic files as well as high definition video for distance learning, diagnostic procedures and surgical assistance. He said it will also assist Homeland Security, ICE and Border Patrol to improve border surveillance.
"Within five to seven years the Rio Grande Valley will become known as the technology area of choice in Texas," Osborn predicted.
In spring 2010, UTPA assisted the Valley Telephone Cooperative, Inc. in a successful grant application for nearly $80 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enable the construction of broadband infrastructure to 12 underserved areas from Lyford to George West. The installation of those lines began this summer.
The construction of the Rio Grande Valley Med/Ed Fiber Optic Network is expected to start this year and take three years to complete.