Bill aimed at bolstering NM broadband advances

Isaac Romero, 17, studies for an Advanced Placement biology test from his home in Española in this September 2020 file photo. A bill that would create a new office to oversee a statewide broadband plan advanced Tuesday at the Roundhouse. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Despite recent efforts to upgrade New Mexico’s connectivity, the state’s broadband coverage continues to lag behind that of other states.

A bill aimed at shoring up the broadband shortcomings – which have been exposed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – passed its first Senate committee 8-3 Tuesday.

The measure, Senate Bill 93, would establish an office in state government to oversee a statewide broadband plan and negotiate broadband rights of way with local governments.

“What we need is coordination; what we need is a plan,” bill sponsor Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said during Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee.

The bill is one of several broadband-related proposals that have been introduced during the 60-day legislative session.

It calls for a $950,000 appropriation to staff the new broadband office and hire a director, who would be appointed by the governor.

Although the state already has a Department of Information Technology, that agency oversees a broad range of technology issues, and several legislative reports have recommended creation of an office to focus specifically on broadband challenges.

Representatives of several business groups testified in favor of the legislation Tuesday, but skeptics expressed concern about the idea of creating a new state office amid recent growth in the number of Cabinet-level state government agencies.

“Our government has exploded since the Gary Johnson administration,” said Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, referring to the former GOP governor who held office from 1995 through 2002.

Nationwide, New Mexico is the 49th-best connected state in the country, according to BroadbandNow, a broadband availability website.

While average download speeds are fast in parts of the state such as Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Clovis, access to high-speed internet connections is lacking in many parts of New Mexico.

And the issue of broadband connectivity has been laid bare by the pandemic, which has forced many New Mexicans to work and attend school remotely.

Twenty-one percent of students in public schools – about 66,200 – live in households without internet subscriptions, according a Legislative Finance Committee report released last year.

And about 1,100 students live outside the reach of cellphone or broadband service, even if their parents could afford it, the report said.

Padilla, who has also pushed for broadband bills in past legislative sessions, said the state would ultimately need to invest between $500 million and $800 million to fully bring its network up to speed.

The measure now advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

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