New Mexico cannot waste the opportunity to expand broadband internet access. Yet without progress over the next few months — including during the 2022 legislative session, when money will be allocated for broadband — that’s exactly what could happen.
Officials with the New Mexico Department of Information Technology made it clear to legislators earlier this week New Mexico remains unprepared for wide broadband expansion. Not only has the state not laid enough groundwork, but future funding is uncertain for a project likely to cost more than $1 billion over several years.
It doesn’t appear state officials know exactly how much money they have in hand to begin the work.
Legislators listening to the report at the Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee wanted details. Without specifics, a project as big as expanding broadband across our vast state can’t be done right.
Even such a basic fact as how many people lack internet service is unknown. There are guesses — solid ones but not exact. A 2020 report by the Legislative Finance Committee estimated between 13 percent and 20 percent of New Mexico’s homes and businesses lacked internet access at the time.
The federal government has weighed in with estimates of some 22 percent of residents lacking broadband infrastructure with acceptable internet speeds. Nearly 70 percent of residents live where only one such internet provider exists. About one in five New Mexico households lacks an internet subscription, the federal government found.
We have a lot of work to do.
But there is reason to hope. The state has established an Office of Broadband Access and Expansion — that means for the first time, New Mexico is coordinating the effort.
One man, incoming adviser Matt Schmitt, is the point person, along with project director Gar Clarke and acting Information Technology Secretary Raja Sambandam. Schmitt isn’t even on the job yet; he starts in early December, with the goal of presenting a framework of the still-unfinished broadband plan to legislators.
New Mexico is eligible for up to $100 million for the project from the American Rescue Plan, a fraction of what eventually will be needed. Pairing those millions with money already appropriated at the state level would jump start the process.
A key factor in how successful increasing broadband access will be is bringing tribal governments into discussions. As lawmakers pointed out, they have to provide rights-of-way for the necessary infrastructure. And those talks needed to have happened yesterday, well before the infusion of money arrives.
Good news? For the first time, a governor has made expanding internet access a top priority. This effort will be coordinated, designed to avoid wasting money and duplication of efforts. To do that, build on what already has been done.
The state should know where internet is weak or nonexistent; after all, students across New Mexico had to attend remote school for parts of 2020 and 2021. The Public Education Department has records of where the internet is lousy. Those are the places requiring hotspots so students could attend class and do homework.
All that information — whether from state agencies or departments; tribal and local governments; or school districts — needs to be gathered in one place. That’s why the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion matters. Now, there’s a clearinghouse; a place for planning and executing the plan while money is available.
As Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, so correctly pointed out: “Broadband connectivity is a human right.”
In New Mexico, the challenge is to turn that right into reality.