Texas Representative Will Hurd—the only Republican to hold a district that falls along the southern border—is not in favor of a border wall. Instead, he’s partial to the idea of a “digital” wall: a border-wide system of technology such as cameras, sensors, and drones communicating through a fiber optic network to keep the border secure. And he thinks it could have the added benefit of closing the digital divide.
The Texas-Mexico border is a region that is particularly hard hit by the digital divide. Hurd believes that a fiber optic network installed for the purpose of connecting border security technology could pull double duty as an internet backbone for local communities to tap into.
“The added benefit of using a fiber optic cable is that you can then bring broadband access to some of the rural communities along the border,” Hurd told me in a phone interview. “In 13 out of the 29 counties I represent, fewer than 20 percent [of people] have access to broadband. We can’t let rural areas be deprived of the benefits of a digital economy.”
The fiber optic network could serve as a way to bring the internet closer to these communities by building an internet “backbone.” But that backbone piece is actually not the biggest barrier to getting rural towns connected, according to Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
“It’s not really going to lower the costs of connecting the homes—that’s where most of the cost is, running the fiber to the houses and down the street,” Mitchell said in a voicemail message. “It might help a little bit, I don’t think it really moves the needle that much.”
Hurd admits that local ISPs or communities would have to pay for the rest of the infrastructure to connect homes, but said a fiber optic border network would at least “give [communities] the chance.”
That’s assuming that local ISPs or communities are able to tap into the border infrastructure in the first place, an idea that might be too good to be true, according to Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a senior staff technologist for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
“I would be very wary of conflating the idea of a fiber optic cable along border with trying to address digital divide,” Gillmor said in a phone interview. “If they’re installing it for the purposes of surveillance and border control, that doesn’t mean it is connected to the internet and, even if it is, it doesn’t mean the public will have access to it.”
Gillmor also flagged the extensive privacy concerns with having a constantly surveilled border region, especially if, as Hurd told me, sensors could be used to track people’s movements beyond the immediate border territory.
“That’s worrisome to me, not only for people at the border who might get swept up, but also people near the border,” Gillmor said in a phone interview. “The Customs and Border Protection agency claims 100 miles from the border is their territory. If that’s how far they’re surveilling, we’re talking about a lot of people.”
Hurd told me privacy concerns were less of an issue in less-populated areas such as the desert. In more densely populated areas, he suggested that different technology could be used to mitigate privacy concerns, but did not specify what technology.
And though he’s touted the concept for many years, there are no immediate plans to try to push this idea through Congress. As noted in a recent New York Times profile, Hurd isn’t “inclined to broadcast his perspective or obsessively rope in votes for his cause. He has not sought opportunities to directly lobby the president to endorse the technological barriers he has envisioned.”
With that in mind, anyone hoping for digital divide woes to be solved with a high-tech border system shouldn’t hold their breath.