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Proposed New Mexico broadband expansion takes shape

An Albuquerque Public Schools bus equipped with Wi-Fi awaits students while parked near the Pajarito Mesa Community Center on Wednesday. More than 20% of students in New Mexico public schools live in homes without internet subscriptions. Many rural areas of the state have no broadband internet access. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With many New Mexicans working remotely and attending classes from home during the coronavirus pandemic, New Mexico’s broadband system has been put to the test.

And despite attempts in recent years to improve broadband connectivity, the state still lags behind most of the nation.

During a largely remote 60-day legislative session that has been slowed at times by technical issues, lawmakers are trying to patch together a plan to improve connectivity.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, gives a thumbs-up to a Senate colleague on Wednesday after his bill creating a new state office of broadband expansion passed on a 33-6 vote. The bill now moves on to the House. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The approach includes $133 million in total proposed state spending on broadband expansion – a figure that includes funding for local broadband companies – and a bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday that would create a centralized state broadband office.

“This is the future – it’s the connection for everything,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said during Wednesday’s floor debate.

Wirth compared the effort to expand broadband systems to the drive to provide electricity during the 20th century, while lauding the efforts of some rural electrical co-ops to build broadband infrastructure.

But the push to improve New Mexico’s broadband connectivity has also revealed different approaches.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, expressed concern Wednesday about high vacancy rates in the state agency that currently oversees a broad range of technology issues.

He also said the state will miss out on large amounts of federal matching dollars for broadband infrastructure unless it crafts a statewide connectivity plan.

“Broadband will never happen until that plan is put into place,” Muñoz said.

The measure approved Wednesday, Senate Bill 93, would address that issue by establishing a new state office – and an attached oversight council – to create a broadband plan and negotiate rights of way with local governments.

“There’s no plan at the moment, and that’s the key No. 1 function of this office,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

The bill approved by a 33-6 vote on Wednesday that now goes to the House initially included a $950,000 appropriation, but that funding was removed in a Senate committee.

While backers of the measure say current state workers could be used to staff the office, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office expressed concern about the stripped-out funding.

“We are supportive of the legislation, though we encourage legislators to ensure it includes an accompanying appropriation in order to be effective,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Wednesday.

“The administration is ready to execute on key broadband projects statewide – ensuring the funding to do so from the appropriating branch would be the necessary first step,” she said.

Rural areas lack access

Statewide, more than 20% 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.

Those challenges were highlighted during Wednesday’s debate, with Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, citing parents driving their children to internet hot spots so they could complete schoolwork from inside the car.

“The issues in the rural areas of the state really need to be addressed,” Stefanics said.

The $133 million in proposed state funding in this year’s session includes $70 million for broadband expansion that’s included in a supplemental spending bill, according to the Senate Finance Committee.

In addition, $5 million would be appropriated for tribal broadband projects, and $10 million would be earmarked for New Mexico-based broadband companies.

The remaining funds would be targeted at home broadband connectivity and local planning, among other purposes.

If the funding is fully approved, the state dollars could yield more than $1 billion in funding from federal and private sources, Muñoz said.

NM 49th in nation

Nationwide, New Mexico is only 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 is lacking in many parts of New Mexico.

In addition to the new state office, several other broadband-related proposals have been introduced during the 60-day legislative session.

That includes measures creating a new state government position to focus on rural equity issues and expanding the state’s Rural Telecommunications Act to allow newly created providers to benefit from a state fund.

The session ends March 20.

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