Grant aims to close NM digital divide - Albuquerque Journal

Grant aims to close NM digital divide

Barbara Cottam, senior adviser with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, discusses broadband access and equity at a news conference. (Liam DeBonis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

About 400,000 people in New Mexico, mostly in rural parts of the state, have no internet access.

Thanks to a federal grant of $5.74 million, as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, New Mexico is taking a step toward filling that gap.

The grant allows officials throughout the state to plan for another federal award of more than $100 million, expected to be provided in early 2024 for installation of the hardware required to bring internet connectivity to parts of the state where there is none now.

bright spotThe planning grant was announced Tuesday in a joint news conference attended by Barbara Cottam, senior adviser for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce; Kelly Schlegel, director of New Mexico’s Office of Broadband Access and Expansion; and Catherine Nicolaou, broadband program manager for the city of Albuquerque.

“The internet is now the essential tool, not only for communications, but really for access to work, access to economic opportunity, and access to mobility, education and health care,” said Cottam.

In traveling around the country to learn about the challenges of connectivity, Cottam said she found that underserved communities are ready to be connected “and understand the value of high-speed internet,” and that internet providers are ready to partner with these communities to develop solutions, and that people shouldn’t have to choose between living in a community they love and a job located elsewhere.

New Mexico is well on its way to providing internet access to all. In the past year, Cottam said, the NTIA has invested more than $150 million in the state, which included funds for building out 336 miles of new optical fiber infrastructure. As part of the Tribal Broadband Program, $57 million went to the Santa Fe Indian Schools Public Education Network to connect hundreds of students to the internet; $44 million went to the Mescalero Apache tribe for a project to bring internet service to more than 800 unserved families; and $3 million to New Mexico Highlands University for creating a digital workforce development curriculum to help reach underserved populations in northern New Mexico.

“Generations that have come before us have brought water and electricity across America. They’ve built the Interstate Highway System. This is our generation’s infrastructure moment and it is transformational, Cottam said. “It’s our opportunity to connect everyone in America with the tools they need for their own lives.”

Schlegel said the $5.74 million grant will be used to “forge strong collaborative relationships with state, federal agencies, local governments, schools and tribes.”

Ultimately, the goal is to collect data and “put a very detailed, comprehensive plan together to bring internet to every rural pocket across New Mexico,” she said.

Part of the effort is a Connect New Mexico survey to map areas in the state that have no internet service and to determine what kind of internet delivery system is available in areas that do have access, as well as the provider and the internet speed, Schlegel said. That information will be used to update a national broadband map. To fill out the survey, visit connectnewmexico.org.

Also present at the Wednesday news conference were representatives from Teeniors, an organization that matches technology-savvy teens with older adults and seniors trying to learn how to use their personal devices and navigate on the internet.

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