NM eyes federal funds for broadband internet

In this March file photo, an Albuquerque Public Schools bus equipped with wifi awaits students while parked near the Pajarito Mesa Community Center. More than 20% of students in New Mexico public schools live in homes without internet subscriptions. Many rural areas of the state have no broadband internet access. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

SANTA FE — An avalanche of federal funding available over the next few years could be enough to move New Mexico close to universal broadband access, legislators were told Monday.

It would be a remarkable turnaround for a state where 13% to 20% of homes and businesses don’t have broadband internet available, according to state documents.

Estimates issued last year forecast it would cost $1 billion to $5 billion to reach most or all of the unserved locations in New Mexico, depending on the technology used and scope of the expansion.

But Matt Schmit, adviser to the state’s newly created broadband office, said the funding available to New Mexico through the federal stimulus and infrastructure bills offers a historic chance to address the gaps in broadband internet service.

The bipartisan infrastructure legislation, for example, includes about $100 million for New Mexico to get started, he said, but there’s also about $43 billion available nationwide that will be divided up to states through a formula. The fiscal stimulus bill also has funding New Mexico can apply for.

“Much more help is indeed on the way,” Schmit said.

If the state plays its cards right, he said, New Mexico could get close to the funding needed “for achieving universal broadband access throughout the state.”

In addition to the federal money, state funding of about $133 million was approved by the Legislature this year and made available for broadband expansion.

Gar Clarke, a project manager for the Department of Information Technology, acknowledged it would take a “huge amount of cash” to connect every home to fiber or high-speed wireless internet service.

But he said the state will aggressively pursue federal funding from a variety of sources, with the state’s own funds used to match or leverage federal funding.

“Yes, it’s a big gap,” Clarke said when asked about the cost of connecting every address to broadband. “We can’t do it without federal dollars.”

Lawmakers reacted with some skepticism. They highlighted New Mexico’s sparsely populated areas, network of tribal jurisdictions and poverty as significant challenges to extending high-speed internet access.

Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, said she has spent years listening to optimistic presentations about expanding broadband and other services.

“I think COVID showed us very clearly how we needed to improve our infrastructure and how we needed to improve our technology,” she said.

Amid the shift to remote learning last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, some New Mexico families had to leave home to catch wifi, sometimes sitting outside restaurants to get the speeds necessary to complete homework or do online learning.

Analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee last year estimated about 21% of students in public schools — roughly 66,200 young people — lived in a household without an internet subscription, and about 1,100 students lived outside the reach of cell or broadband service, even if their parents could afford it.

New Mexico has ranked among the worst states in the country for broadband availability.

Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, shared the old quote attributed to New Mexico Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace — “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico” — and warned Schmit to heed shortcomings in state laws that make it difficult to collaborate with private companies.

“You have a big job in front of you,” Griggs said. But “hopefully we can really do some good.”

Schmit, who has served as director of the Illinois Office of Broadband, was hired by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration to serve as an adviser to New Mexico’s new broadband office.

Legislation passed earlier this year established a new Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to develop a three-year statewide broadband plan and carry it out.

“For me, broadband and connectivity is a human right,” Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said.

Monday’s broadband presentation came in a meeting of the Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee, led by Rubio.

The focus on broadband comes as New Mexico is expected to have plenty to spend. State economists have forecast healthy increases in state revenue, in addition to federal stimulus and infrastructure funding.

The 30-day legislative session set to begin Jan. 18 is expected to heavily focus on state spending and finances.


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