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USDA to spend $23M to expand broadband in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing $23 million to expand broadband service into unserved and underserved areas in rural New Mexico, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Tuesday.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The money will go to three recipients through the USDA ReConnect pilot program.

“This is what we want to provide for all of rural America,” Perdue said in a teleconference. “We don’t want to continue the digital divide that we have today.”

ENMR Telephone Cooperative was awarded a $19.2 million grant. Acoma Pueblo was awarded a $942,000 grant, and Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative received a $3.1 million award.

State Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte said the expanded service would help agricultural producers market their products online. Perdue said it will enhance telemedicine in rural areas.

Witte also said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the challenges students in rural New Mexico face without internet.

“They’re (schoolchildren) learning from their homes,” he said. “And yet we’ve run into connectivity issues. I think through this ReConnect program, we have a great opportunity to really get that taken care of in the future.”

The ENMR project has a $6.4 million match. The project will build over 758 miles of fiber, offering services in 19 areas in eastern New Mexico, according to the USDA. It will serve more than 780 households, farms, businesses and ranches.

The Acoma Pueblo project includes a $300,000 match. The pueblo intends to build 13 miles of fiber and deliver wireless broadband to 771 households, farms, businesses, schools and health centers. The project will be spread over 22 miles in Cibola County.

Peñasco Valley’s project will build 46 miles of fiber to serve 659 households over 363 square miles in Lincoln, Otero, Chaves and Eddy counties. It has a $1 million match.

ENMR Chief Financial Officer David Robinson said the grant will allow many people in the rural areas ENMR serves to communicate beyond the use of telephones and copper cable.

“Our pueblo has strived to connect for a number of years,” Acoma First Lt. Gov. Pierson Siow added. “This funding will afford tribal members, especially our students, with the opportunity to prosper and connect with external needs. … It is especially important during this coronavirus, with our students forced into distance learning.”

He said households on the pueblo average only 7 megabytes per second in internet speed under current providers. He said that once the project is complete, the pueblo would be able to provide high-speed internet to 95% of its community.

Without the grant, the costs would be too high for Peñasco Valley to provide sufficient high-speed internet to the remote areas it serves, CFO Kurt Garrard said.

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