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Editorial: Yes, NM needs better broadband, but maybe not more government

Myriad studies show New Mexico has an internet connectivity problem – the only real debate is how to finally fix it.

U.S. Census Bureau data released two years ago determined 73.7% of New Mexico households had broadband connections, just ahead of Arkansas and Mississippi. BroadbandNow ranks New Mexico 49th, with only 66.5% of New Mexicans having access to wired broadband and rural parts of the state really suffering – just 2.1% of Hidalgo County, 5.7% of Socorro County, 10.2% of Colfax County and 14.6% of Catron County residents had broadband coverage.

And New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee found this month that none of the state’s nine broadband goals of 2014 have been completely achieved despite the investment of hundreds of millions of public dollars.

Lest anyone think this lack of logging on is simply depriving residents of trending TikTok and cat videos, the COVID-era has laid serious inequities bare. From remote learning to telemedicine, never has internet connectivity been more important, or more missed, than when it comes to providing basic services. Around 76,000 New Mexico students don’t have internet service at home, according to the state Public Schools Facilities Authority.

So Sen. Michael Padilla’s proposal to coordinate efforts to expand broadband internet service in New Mexico is a good idea, long overdue.

But with just 2 million residents in our sparsely populated state, do we really need to grow government exponentially to do it?

Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said last week he hopes to introduce a bill next year that would create a new state office – the New Mexico Office of Broadband Access and Expansion – to coordinate broadband efforts that are now scattered across multiple state agencies. Padilla says he is weighing whether the new office should report to the governor or to the Cabinet secretary of information technology.

How about simply consolidating efforts under the IT umbrella and following the LFC recommendations of:

• Beefing up IT staffing

• Coordinating all statewide and intergovernmental broadband policies and initiatives

• Defining unserved and underserved areas

• Identifying and coordinating sources of funding

• Navigating regulatory and permitting issues

• Focusing on getting the most cost-effective solutions, because the idea of wiring every home is simply not economically feasible

• Setting targets for broadband deployment and performance

• And reporting regularly on progress in meeting outcomes?

And instead of funding a brand new government agency with any savings from bulk price agreements, federal funding and private investment, using that money to get more folks online with affordable plans?

While we’re at it, how about requiring those IT folks to report back with our return on investment? LFC analysts say the state and federal governments have funded about $325 million in broadband projects in New Mexico over a recent four-year period, but it’s hard to track the money and ensure accountability.

And that is more frustrating than watching your computer screen buffer for hours on end.

Under Padilla’s proposal, the state could step in and fill “middle mile” and “last mile” connectivity gaps, providing access in communities desperate for economic development, helping schools and libraries get enough qualified administrators to improve and use their new broadband networks, and ensuring more households have internet access so they can log on to classes and doctor appointments.

Yes, New Mexico has too many areas unserved or underserved by broadband internet. The question is what are they, and what is the most efficient way to extend connectivity to them – be they native New Mexicans or future high-tech transplants?

There are still a lot of questions. A comprehensive study showing the specific needs and the mechanisms to meet them would provide a road map for whomever leads the charge. But the senator is correct. This needs to be a priority with specific benchmarks and intensive oversight.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.