The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last month, with $65 billion in federal funding allocated to upgrade and expand America’s broadband network, could not have come at a more critical time for New Mexicans. We have one of the worst digital divides in the country, with one report finding that, in about half the counties in our state, fewer than 21% of households actually have high-speed internet access.
When so much of our ability to participate in work, school, our economy and our communities depends on reliable connectivity, the funding our state will receive is a major accomplishment by President Biden that will help close the digital divide. It stands to benefit not only rural residents and our students, but also our state’s overall economic competitiveness.
Now that funding will be distributed to states, it is up to New Mexico’s regulators to ensure this gets done responsibly and equitably – and that means finally prioritizing broadband for our rural and tribal communities.
New Mexico has long had significant disparities in broadband access, which hit such rural areas as the East Mountains and our tribal communities the hardest. In McKinley County, nearly 60% of households lack broadband access. This is unacceptable in today’s economy and society where the internet is essential to everything we do – and it could have been avoided.
Our digital divide is in part the result of the failings of Internet Service Providers (ISPs). A June 2021 report found that Lumen Technologies, formerly CenturyLink, discriminated against lower-income, rural and tribal communities by blatantly failing to invest in essential fiber-optic buildout in those areas where they do not expect to turn a high profit.
No American should be left behind or limited to less reliable wireless connections because of their income or where they live, and our state regulators have a responsibility to prioritize these areas and use federal broadband funding to close this gap.
Although it is one of the largest ISPs serving New Mexico, there is strong evidence that Lumen has allowed much of our existing infrastructure to fall into disrepair. As executive vice president of CWA/IUE Local 7011 and a former Lumen employee, I’ve seen firsthand the impact of this neglect – unreliable connections, spotty service and the inability to share adequate bandwidth within households. CWA has shared documentation of these concerns, including dozens of photos – from cables strung along fence posts to wires on the ground – with New Mexico regulators.
In addition to building new broadband infrastructure, New Mexico desperately needs to invest in upgrading, repairing and maintaining our existing broadband network. And we need regulation in place to ensure deployment is done right, with a skilled union workforce that knows the equipment, the infrastructure and the communities. Currently, our state regulates only copper lines, telephone and voice. This needs to change to match the infrastructure needs of the 21st Century.
Before we fund broadband buildout projects, we need regulations and guarantees in place to ensure that New Mexicans in our most vulnerable regions do not get the short end of the stick. Sen. Michael Padilla, interim vice chair of the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee, has shown interest in CWA’s ideas for regulating broadband, but expects the process to take several years. Meanwhile, he is proposing elimination of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission’s oversight over Lumen’s phone service, which would allow the company to abandon customers they deem unprofitable before an alternative is in place.
CWA members are ready to get to work. Let’s repair what we have. Let’s make sure we have reliable facilities to carry broadband service. And let’s make broadband a reality for the entire state.
We don’t want to be always under construction, but if New Mexico’s regulators don’t act quickly, that’s exactly where we could end up.