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N.M.’S Daunting Digital Divide

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Rural New Mexico has benefited from roughly $400 million in broadband development in recent years, but the state still faces a huge digital divide.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, New Mexico received more than $200 million in federal stimulus funding to extend high-speed Internet in rural areas.

If matching dollars from telephone companies that won stimulus grants are included, plus development loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, broadband investments in the past five years surpass $400 million, according to the state Department of Information Technology.

But many of New Mexico’s rural zones still have no Internet coverage, and many that do are still using dial-up modems, or aging digital subscriber line (DSL) technology, said USDA Rural Development State Director Terry Brunner.

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“We have a long way to go nationally in developing broadband, but New Mexico is further behind than other states,” Brunner said. “New Mexico has some of the slowest speeds in the nation, and in the West for sure.”

For consumers, that creates a huge dichotomy in quality of life between urban and rural residents. While city dwellers have access to the latest in communications capability — from streaming video on smartphones and laptops to remote control of home thermostats and electric appliances — many families in New Mexico’s vast expanses remain strapped to 20th century technology.

That’s a critical impediment to economic stability.

“If local businesses, large or small, are going to compete nationally and internationally, they need Internet access with acceptable speeds,” Brunner said. “Whatever industry they’re in, whether it’s tourism, manufacturing or auto repair, companies need to be able to transact business electronically. It’s key to economic development in New Mexico.”

It’s also key to individual progress, because online access can provide rural New Mexicans with educational opportunities, health care and other services that may be difficult to get otherwise.

“If we don’t provide communications in rural areas that are as good as in the cities, we’ll continue to see the rural-to-urban migration we’ve experienced for years,” said Charlie Ferrell, executive director of the New Mexico Exchange Carriers Group, which represents 11 rural telephone cooperatives.

New Mexico faces more hurdles than many other states in building remote connectivity because of its vast rural nature. The Exchange Carriers Group, for example, provides telecommunications service to 77,000 square miles of territory, with an average of 2.2 customers per mile.

Such broad distances and low population densities make digital infrastructure very expensive to install, preventing many commercial providers from laying fiber optics or other broadband technology without government assistance.

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“New Mexico still has a digital divide because in some areas it’s just so hard to go through mountains or rock formations, and then you get to the end of the route and find there just aren’t enough homes and businesses to pay for the construction,” said Valerie Dodd, CenturyLink Inc.’s vice president and general manager for New Mexico.

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In addition, poverty and a lack of understanding about the benefits of Internet access often discourage many rural residents from paying for services even when broadband is available.

As a result, New Mexico ranked 46th in the nation for broadband use in the 2010 U.S. census. Only 53 percent of residents here said they access broadband at home, compared with 80 percent nationally.

Stimulus funds did make a dent in the digital divide. Thanks to federal assistance, members of the Exchange Carriers Group doubled the amount of fiber optics in the ground from 3,000 to 6,000 miles.

“In most cases, about 95 percent of customers can now get coverage if they want it, so they (the companies) have moved the bar up somewhat,” Ferrell said.

Some providers got funding for very large projects. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative received a $44 million grant and a $19 million loan to create a 2,400-mile broadband network to connect about 20,500 households, 3,600 businesses and 183 “anchor” institutions, such as schools and health clinics.

But a lot of needs remain unfulfilled. ENMR-Plateau Telecommunications in Clovis, for example, received $39 million in grants and loans for more infrastructure in its service area, allowing up to 100 percent coverage in some towns and villages. But services are still limited in many outlying areas, said Chief Technology and Network Officer Buddy Vaughan.

“We have 25,000 square miles to cover,” Vaughan said. “About seven years ago, we estimated it would take more than $300 million to get broadband to all our members. It’s less now, because technology has advanced more and become cheaper, but construction costs don’t come down, and that’s the biggest expense in getting fiber in the ground.”

Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative and Leaco Rural Telephone Cooperative received a combined $56 million in loans and assistance for broadband infrastructure. But both companies still have many territorial pockets without coverage that might only be served in the future through wireless technologies, which are slower and less reliable than fiber.

“We’re working to get (fourth generation) wireless solutions for many remaining customers, because it’s impossible to build fiber to every rural area,” said Leaco CEO Laura Angell.

Peñasco added about 200 miles of fiber with federal assistance, but with an average of less than one customer per mile in its 4,700-square-mile territory, it could cost up to $150 million to lay fiber for everybody, said CEO Glenn Lovelace.

In addition, the company faces much red tape.

“We have to deal with many government regulations that make the job difficult, such of right-of-way issues,” Lovelace said. “On one project, it took us 12 years to get the highway permit to lay fiber from Hondo to Lincoln.”

Even endangered species protection can adds costs to laying fiber.

“We have to put ‘lizard ladders’ in every open trench,” Lovelace said. “The dune sagebrush lizard has a limited number of scales under its armpits, and if we’re in protected zones, we have to put two-by-fours in the ditches so if any of those little fellows fall into the ditch, they can climb out.”

Federal money continues to flow to New Mexico. The Federal Communications Commission awarded $2.3 million last summer to CenturyLink and Windstream Communications to extend broadband access in rural areas. And, in December, it approved $15.4 million for the University of New Mexico’s Center for Telehealth, San Juan Regional Medical Center and Presbyterian Healthcare Systems to jointly build a rural telehealth broadband network.

Still, experts say high-speed Internet access is moving at a dial-up pace in New Mexico.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be,” said Richard Lowenberg, executive director of the First Mile Institute in Santa Fe. “We still have gaping holes with many underserved areas.”

Gar Clarke, broadband program director at the Department of Information Technology, said an online mapping program financed with $4.7 million in stimulus funds has allowed the government to build the state’s first public, interactive website that details technology availability geographically. That will help plan more broadband extension projects in critical zones.

“It will help focus our energy,” Clarke said. “We’ll look at existing conditions to determine future needs to then get funding and move forward.”

The USDA’s Brunner said that’s an important step.

“There needs to be leadership from folks at the state level to determine needs and create targeted areas for investment,” he said. “The USDA would be happy to meet some of those funding needs.”

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