Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Jemez Pueblo Gov. Michael Toledo Jr. walked down rows of computer servers, colorful cables, blinking lights and whirring fans at the bigbyte.cc Data Center in Downtown Albuquerque on Friday.
An hour drive away, a smaller set of equipment and towers was connecting nearly 500 Jemez Pueblo homes to high-speed internet for the first time through a fiber-optic network.
“This is a big moment,” Toledo said. “For years our tribal leaders, the governors, tribal council, and directors from our departments have been planning how to get internet service to our people.”
The new tribally owned Jemez Pueblo Tribal Network also connects government offices and departments.
COVID relief funded project
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a $4.8 million project to upgrade the pueblo’s internet was just a five-year plan on paper.
A flood of federal and state relief money made the project a reality.
“It’s really about location,” Toledo said. “Jemez didn’t have the resources to get fiber all the way to us, and we don’t really have a way to generate our own funding. This project was shovel ready. The need was there, and then that money became available.”
The Jemez Tribal Council approved a total of $2 million for the project from the tribe’s allocation of federal CARES Act funds.
New Mexico directed $1.4 million from its state CARES Act allocations, and the project received $1.3 million in state capital outlay funds.
Private grants funded the remainder of the project.
Fast internet for libraries, schools, homes
The pueblo-wide project expands on a program to connect Jemez schools and libraries to high-speed internet.
A Federal Communications Commission E-rate program directed about $4 million from 2016 to 2018 for fiber infrastructure in two schools and six libraries at Jemez, Zia, Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Cochiti pueblos.
The program’s success prompted tribal leaders to think of a way to connect the rest of the tribal community, said Kevin Shendo, Jemez Pueblo education director.
“It’s night and day,” Shendo said of the new internet. “It’s redefining the digital landscape of our community. The beauty of it is that we own the network. We are able to have control over the service and the speeds that we provide.”
About 3,000 people live on Jemez Pueblo in Sandoval County.
The project will also bring high-speed internet to Jemez students and families who live just outside of reservation boundaries.
Nerissa Whittington, bigbyte founder and owner, said on-site amplifying equipment helps bring strong internet the long distance to Jemez.
“This is next-generation technology for the next generation,” she said. “It’s especially important at this time when so many people need to be working from home.”
The main distribution frame at the Albuquerque data center is mirrored by a smaller piece of equipment at Jemez Pueblo.
A new tower distributes the wireless signal to the community. Each home is set up with a receiver and modem to connect to the internet.
The data center also provided training space for the Jemez team as they prepared to roll out the internet network. The company i9 Technologies assisted with the program’s engineering and deployment.
The pandemic has closed or restricted schools and businesses and canceled events across New Mexico to prevent spread of the virus.
Michael Chinana, Jemez Pueblo first lieutenant governor, said the restrictions and closures severely affected pueblo residents who did not have any internet in their homes.
“This broadband just opens up a bunch of doors for our artists, for our children, for our business people, for those people who have been laid off from restaurants, casinos, hotels that closed,” Chinana said. “Now that a lot of them are looking at working from home, this internet opens up that capability.”
About half of households on tribal land have basic broadband access, according to the FCC.
The Jemez internet project could be a model for other pueblos and rural communities, said Lynn Trujillo, cabinet secretary for the state Indian Affairs Department.
“The pueblo did an incredible job of planning and preparing for the time when the funds would become available,” Trujillo said. “It’s a total package that covers everything from infrastructure to workforce. I think that’s really promising and empowering, and it could be replicated elsewhere. We just need funding.”