State Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert told state officials during a recent legislative hearing she’s spent years listening to optimistic presentations about expanding broadband internet across New Mexico.
The Corrales Republican isn’t alone. So have we. Universal broadband is as elusive as tomorrow, always a day away, even as legislators have made it a point of emphasis.
The industry website BroadbandNow ranks New Mexico 49th in broadband access. Not surprising considering we’re geographically the fifth-largest state, have many rural communities cloaked by mountains and rank near the bottom of median household incomes.
Flush with funding from federal stimulus and infrastructure bills and a windfall from oil and gas proceeds, state officials are seeing a historic opportunity to address internet service gaps. But they must do it wisely, not necessarily digging trenches for fiber-optic lines from one end of the state to another. State officials estimate that method would take years and cost upward of $5 billion.
There may well be better ways to make internet connections available to everyone. The global pandemic made WiFi hotspots a household term. The New Mexico Economic Development Department is currently contracting with a Swiss dirigible manufacturer to study the viability of delivering high-speed internet from 12 miles above the ground, where signals aren’t obstructed by mountains, buildings and even the curvature of the Earth. Another promising prospect is SpaceX, which announced it will eventually expand satellite internet service to lower latitudes that include New Mexico.
In other words, New Mexico needs to ensure it invests in technology that not only works, but works with our terrain, not only today but for many tomorrows to come.
Legislation passed earlier this year established the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to develop a three-year statewide broadband plan. Matt Schmit, former director of the Illinois Office of Broadband, has been hired as adviser to the new office. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has stressed the need to get broadband internet service to every household. Over 20% of students were without internet service at home at the start of the pandemic. Between 13% to 20% of N.M. homes and businesses don’t have access to either fiber or high-speed wireless internet. Businesses won’t relocate here because of the lack of connectivity. And until we truly diversify our economy and educate our workforce, poverty will continue to pose significant challenges. Having internet access is one thing; paying the bill is another.
State lawmakers are tackling broadband during the special session that began Monday as part of federal infrastructure spending the governor put on the call; they will likely address broadband again during the 30-day legislative session that begins Jan. 18. State economists are projecting a record-breaking $9 billion in revenue for the state’s operating budget that starts in July — a whopping $1.6 billion in “new” money over this year’s spending levels. The state also has roughly $1.1 billion of uncommitted federal relief funds. And a recently adopted federal infrastructure bill includes about $100 million for broadband services in New Mexico. In addition, the Legislature appropriated about $133 million earlier this year for broadband expansion.
Heavy state and federal funding have made it possible to realistically think about universal internet access in New Mexico. Still, lawmakers such as Powdrell-Culbert are right to be skeptical. We’ve got a long way to go to extend high-speed connectivity to parts of the Albuquerque metro area, much less sparsely populated areas.
So we need our state leaders and lawmakers to get past the rhetoric and tired promises and actually plug into solutions that deliver real return on internet investment for students, businesses and taxpayers footing the bill.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.