AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – In June, the City of Amarillo and AT&T announced a $24 million project, where the company will expand its fiber network within the city to reach more than 22 thousand homes, businesses, and more, bridging the digital divide.

Chief Information Officer with the City of Amarillo, Rich Gagnon, said the city has been working on two projects to expand broadband access, Amarillo Connected and Panhandle Connected.

“The first, is Amarillo Connected, which is focused on inside the city limits, and the second is Panhandle Connected, which is focused on all 62 communities across the panhandle,” said Gagnon.

Gagnon said that AT&T has already started construction and said they anticipate they will be at 50% completion in six months, 60 to 80% in 12 months and completion in 36 months.

He said with the construction pieces in place, the city is shifting to media literacy.

“We are going to start with fundamentals, for some folks, its as simple as how to turn on a computer, how to use email, what social media is and what it isn’t and how to be safe online,” added Gagnon.

Gagnon said they are also partnering with Amarillo College so folks can add to their skills and increase their chances of getting better jobs.

“Then we want to expand that into basic workforce things like how to use office tools. Word, Excel. What basic skills you can have to improve your employment situation,” said Gagnon.

Gagnon said Panhandle Connected is a collective work group that is looking at how to extend the success of broadband connectivity to the rest of the high plains. The workgroup is made up of the City of Amarillo, Region 16, Amarillo Area Foundation, Impact Broadband, Grow Associates, and Connected Nation.

“That project, there are a few things happening there. We have just submitted for the NTIA Middle Mile Grant, we have submitted for a $100 million grant to upgrade the fiber links from Amarillo to all 62 communities all across the panhandle and now that is submitted we are working on the B grant which will provide connectivity from that fiber from the community to the homes,” said Gagnon.

Gagnon added broadband connectivity is much needed here in the Texas panhandle.

“The Texas Education Agency, when they did their survey, we had 49,000 homes that had little to no access across the panhandle and if you think about it, it’s not just the homes. It is the businesses in those communities,” said Gagnon.

In an OpEd column by Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson released Tuesday, she spoke on the importance of providing internet to those who need it:

The city of Amarillo is blazing a new trail in Texas as the first major city to marry the power of the private sector with funding from the American Rescue Plan to drive deployment of high-speed, high-security internet connections throughout our community.

Through a standard, transparent procurement process, we recently awarded AT&T, an experienced and proven broadband provider, the contract to make internet connections available throughout our city. This was done with a $20 million-plus investment from AT&T.

With this partnership, AT&T will lay fiber to connect homes, apartments, schools and other government buildings, and businesses in Amarillo. This expanded fiber network will be the fastest among major providers and will offer symmetrical speeds of up to 5-Gigs on downloads and uploads. This is ultra-fast internet, allowing a user to stream ultra-HD quality video on up to 4 devices at the same time or download an entire music album in around seven seconds

Internet access plans will be at no cost to citizens who qualify for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, with the goal of closing the digital divide here in Amarillo.

This is the first project on such a large scale in Texas, and we are proud to be leading the way and setting an example for other cities and local governments. In Amarillo, we considered several options for making the most of these dollars before choosing to engage in a public-private partnership – a solution that will allow us to leverage federal dollars and private sector funds.

We suffered from a digital divide like many communities across Texas, but we are also unique in that Amarillo has a significant refugee population. According to the Refugee Language Project, “12,000 refugees have settled in Amarillo and 59% of this population are enrolled in English as a Second Language Program.”

As we all know, access to the internet and educational opportunities are vital for all of us. Helping all Amarillo residents get connected is critical.

In fact, thanks to this collaboration, we were able to greatly multiply our investment and better serve local residents. What’s more, we are able to harness the expertise of a proven provider, and ensure our taxpayers aren’t footing the bill for the continued upgrades, daily maintenance and security improvements that internet infrastructure requires.

Providing connectivity is only the first step. The city also has developed partnerships with multiple agencies such as the Amarillo Area Foundation, Region 16 and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center to help with digital education, once our new fiber infrastructure is up and running. These partnerships will help us create digital equity including access to devices, training, and digital literacy so that the power of our new infrastructure is available to all.

Our program is for today and for the future. We recognize that consumer demand for speed and network capacity will only grow. With AT&T, we have a broadband network that is future-proofed, meaning, they will have the ability to implement even faster speeds as consumers’ needs grow.

Amarillo is taking the lead in ensuring all its residents have access to the worldwide web and its countless uses – from education to workforce development to health care and more. AT&T, with a longtime tradition of excellence in communication, is the right choice in this historic project that will benefit the entire Amarillo community and serve as a template for other cities and communities to follow on how to connect their residents in the digital age

Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson