Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Having an internet connection may seem like a given for most people. Most of us use it for work, entertainment and basic necessities in a 21st Century world.
But for people living in rural areas, broadband connection is not only not always a given, but also sometimes is not even available.
This is the reality for many people living in rural northern New Mexico, including parts of Santa Fe County. The Santa Fe County Commission recently approved up to $1 million in CARES Act funding to expand broadband infrastructure along N.M. 76 from east of Española to Chimayó.
Redi-Net, a community broadband network owned and operated by local and tribal governments, will be tasked with installing the infrastructure that local officials say will benefit schools, businesses and residents in areas that have limited connectivity, or none at all.
Española Public Schools Superintendent Fred Trujillo said the expansion will have a huge impact on the Chimayó community and the students living in that area.
“More importantly, it’s going to affect the community of Chimayó itself simply because now there’s going to be an outlet for them to have some type of affordable internet accessibility,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, the district has determined that about a third of its students don’t have internet access, prompting it to set up hot spots to offer free internet in school parking lots.
Still, it can be incredibly difficult to get signals in such areas as Chimayó, 16 miles east of Española.
Learning that broadband would be expanded into the area was some of the best news the district has gotten in a long time, Trujillo said. There are quite a few students that attend Chimayó Elementary School, he said.
“I can only hope that we will see it not only expanding through Santa Fe County that has part of our district, but also to Rio Arriba County and all of northern New Mexico,” Trujillo said. “We have seen across the state that rural New Mexico has some access problems with the internet. And so, hopefully, we’ll start seeing more of these funds being utilized to bring that access to more communities.”
For Commissioner Anna Hansen, broadband access isn’t a new issue. She ran for office in 2016 on a campaign platform that included increasing broadband access.
“I realize this is really serious, because here we have people who are willing to pay and they can’t get broadband,” said Hansen, who represents District 2, which includes some of the county’s more upscale neighborhoods northwest of Santa Fe. “We don’t have fiber in the ground out there.”
The lack of connectivity affects her constituents in Las Campanas and La Tierra Nueva, she said.
For example, one resident of La Tierra Nueva had a job tutoring children. But she was unable to get an internet connection strong enough to stay online.
Some of the communities in that part of the county rely on older copper wire technology for their internet, Redi-Net board member Jerrold Baca says. And the farther away from the source, the slower the speed.
Neighborhoods in the area are beautiful and the homes are far apart, but it’s horrible for technology, he said.
Redi-Net tried to service those areas, but ran into easement struggles with covenants. The residents love their community and don’t want to see powerlines hanging on poles, Baca said.
Another option would be to bury the fiber optic cable underground, but navigating around existing infrastructure can be difficult and it’s much more costly, he said.
Jon Ehret, La Tierra Nueva Homeowner’s Association board member, said the board has heard more about broadband service from residents recently. He said the main service provider in the area is NMSurf, which does a pretty good job and has few outages.
People in the area northwest of N.M. 599 would like to have better service, but residents are realistic about their service options due to where they choose to live, he said.
Henry Roybal, who chairs the Santa Fe County Commission and represents District 1 at the north end of the county, said improving broadband service is a priority for the County Commission.
He says the funding approved by the commission will have a huge impact on the constituents living in that area.
He knows this from personal experience. Some of his nieces and nephews came to live with him for a couple of weeks because they didn’t have internet service at their homes to access their online schooling.
‘One stop shop’
The Dec. 1 commission meeting featured a presentation from Redi-Net Chairman Raymond Ortiz, who went over how Redi-Net plans and engineers broadband projects. Ortiz said Redi-Net has shovel-ready projects it prepares in advance and then reaches out to local governments to implement them.
Redi-Net is a quasi-government organization that partners with local government to expand broadband infrastructure. This type of setup works well because the company is owned and operated by a consortium of local and tribal governments and isn’t profit-driven.
“You can’t have that level of freedom and control, and that level of movement, to make some of the decisions we’ve made here at Redi-Net if you’re constantly beholden to some corporate entity that’s taking the profits and throwing them somewhere else,” he said.
Redi-Net started about 14 years ago to help expand broadband in northern New Mexico. In some areas, the broadband connection is subpar, in others, it’s completely nonexistent, Ortiz told the Journal in an interview.
For example, the community of Cundiyo doesn’t have broadband. Redi-Net is currently working with the community for permission to set up a tower to service that area, he said.
Ortiz described Redi-Net as a “one stop shop” for broadband service because the organization can engineer and plan broadband projects, as well as do installations. When Redi-Net completes a broadband project, the entities, be they Santa Fe County or Santa Clara Pueblo, own it.
Baca, Redi-Net board member for the Santa Clara Pueblo, said the pandemic has highlighted the need for high-speed internet. In the past, the internet was fast enough to download movies, but people aren’t doing that as much any more. These days, most people stream movies, use the internet when working from home and their children are using it to access virtual classes.
Part of the project along N.M. 76 will bring service to Santa Clara Pueblo. Baca said the pueblo’s decision to join Redi-Net came down to faith in the technology and understanding who it’s going to serve.
“All pueblos are very aware of the cultural aspect to it of the sacred sites,” he said. “You don’t want a big beautiful view ruined by a 75-foot tower. But Santa Clara was understanding of, one, the need for it, and, two, the faith that Redi-Net would address the cultural respect that (the pueblo) deserves.”
Potential to expand
Chris Hyer, Redi-Net board member for Santa Fe County, said the county has been able to identify another project they can do with CARES Act money. It includes installing broadband in the Santa Cruz area and serving the crisis center on the McCurdy Charter School campus.
The project would also go to public housing, the community center and the Boys and Girls Club in that area, he said.
The money the Santa Fe County Commission approved will also be used to build “off ramps” of fiber off N.M. 76 to serve such communities as Truchas, Cordova, Nambé and others.
“It’s really hard to get an understanding of what Redi-Net is because it’s the only place, I think, in the world where you have sovereign nations, counties, municipalities plus council of governments all coming together, working together, to where we share all our easements and everything together. And we all try to benefit each other,” Hyer said.
Generally speaking, access to broadband isn’t considered a government function, which may be part of the problem, Joseph R. Montoya, Santa Fe County Housing Authority executive director, said.
To help install fiber, the county is looking at a dig-once policy, he said. That means when the county is building a road, for instance, it would install utility lines at the same time. This saves money, while also ensuring areas have the utility connections they need.
For the most part, internet has been a private sector initiative, he said. However, there are communities, such as Ammon, Idaho, that have taken it upon themselves to create their own citywide fiber network for residents, Baca said. In 2008, the Ammon City Council declared internet a city utility and, in 2016, got judicial confirmation.
Now, Ammon has some of the lowest internet costs in the county. In 2018, residents connected to the city’s fiber network paid an average of $16 a month for access.
That’s a model Baca said Redi-Net has studied and it has been in contact with Ammon to discuss their fiber strategies.
“That is a great goal of Redi-Net,” said Hyer. “We’re quasi-governmental. We’re volunteers; none of us is paid. We’re not here to make money. We’re here to provide the service for the community.”