NM assesses the use of federal money for broadband

In this March archive photo, an Albuquerque public schools bus equipped with wifi waits for students as it is parked near the Pajarito Mesa Community Center. More than 20% of New Mexico public school students live in homes without an Internet subscription. Many rural areas of the state do not have high speed internet access. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An avalanche of federal funds available over the next few years may be enough to bring New Mexico closer to universal broadband access, lawmakers said Monday.

That would be a remarkable turnaround for a state where 13% to 20% of homes and businesses do not have high-speed internet, according to state documents.

Estimates released last year predicted that it would cost between $ 1 billion and $ 5 billion to reach most or all of New Mexico’s unserved sites, depending on the technology used and the scale of the expansion.

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

Biparty infrastructure legislation, for example, provides about $ 100 million for New Mexico’s startup, he said, but there is also about $ 43 billion available nationwide that will be distributed. between states via a formula. The fiscal stimulus bill also provides funding that New Mexico can apply for.

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

If the state plays its cards right, he said, New Mexico could come one step closer to the funding needed “to achieve universal broadband access statewide.”

In addition to federal money, approximately $ 133 million in public funding was approved by the legislature this year and made available for broadband expansion.

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

But he said the state would aggressively seek federal funding from a variety of sources, with state equity being used to match or leverage federal funding.

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

Lawmakers reacted with some skepticism. They highlighted the sparsely populated areas of New Mexico, the network of tribal jurisdictions, and poverty as significant challenges for expanding high-speed Internet access.

Representative Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, said she had spent years listening to upbeat presentations about the expansion of broadband and other services.

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

Amid the switch to distance learning last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, some families in New Mexico had to leave home to connect to Wi-Fi, sometimes sitting outside restaurants for get the speeds needed to complete homework or do online learning.

Analysts from the Legislative Finance Committee estimated last year that about 21% of public school students – about 66,200 young people – lived in households without internet subscriptions, and about 1,100 students lived out of range of cell service. or broadband, even if their parents could afford it. this.

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

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

“You have a big job ahead of you,” Griggs said. But “I hope we can really do some good.”

Schmit, who was previously director of the Illinois broadband office, was hired by the administration of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to serve as an advisor to the new New Mexico broadband office.

Legislation passed earlier this year created the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to develop and implement a three-year statewide broadband plan.

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

Monday’s broadband presentation came at a meeting of the Transport Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee, chaired by Rubio.

The focus on broadband comes when New Mexico is expected to have a lot to spend. State economists have forecast healthy increases in state revenues, in addition to federal stimulus and infrastructure funding.

The 30-day legislative session that begins Jan. 18 will focus on state spending and finances.

Comments are closed.