SANTA FE, N.M. — David Brownlow claims to be the first in Santa Fe to connect to the Internet. He says that, in 1993, he hand-dug the trench himself, tapping into a line laid by a nonprofit corporation called New Mexico Technet.
“I wanted Internet access. I saw the potential of the Internet,” he said. “I saw the change that happened when we went from broadcast to cable television and I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredibly cool.’ ”
Now, Brownlow, president of studio x, a Santa Fe company specializing in website design and development, thinks it’s incredibly cool that the city of Santa Fe is about to get up to speed with the rapidly changing World Wide Web by launching a $1 million broadband infrastructure project.
Though the groundbreaking was just two weeks ago, city officials say the system should be in place and working by July 1.
“I’m very glad to see that, some 20 years later, it’s something that the city is interested in doing itself,” Brownlow said. “There will be more opportunities for economic development because of the access it will provide.”
Kate Noble, acting director of the city’s Economic Development Division, couldn’t agree more.
“This is incredibly important,” she said of the project. “This is the infrastructure upon which we can build the clean industries of the future.”
The city expects the new broadband infrastructure to accomplish several things.
One, it will double the speed of the Internet from an average of five megabits per second to 10 for residential customers of Internet providers. A typical customer may not notice much difference, but the city says a high-demand user will notice a significant change.
It will also lower wholesale costs and create competition among retail providers, translating to lower costs for the consumer, according to the city.
Not everyone is happy about it. CenturyLink, one of a handful of Internet providers operating in the city, deems it unnecessary.
“CenturyLink shares the government’s interest in bringing broadband to more New Mexican and we spend millions of dollars every year to do so,” the company said in a statement to the Journal. “However, experience has demonstrated that municipal ownership is not a good solution. In virtually every situation where a municipality builds its own broadband facilities, it’s entering a competitive marketplace, thus overbuilding existing networks and wasting limited tax dollars.”
CenturyLink also says that government-owned broadband networks have high failure rates.
“CenturyLink supports local initiatives establishing public-private partnerships that maximize existing infrastructure to extend broadband service to unserved areas,” the company says.
The company disputes the city’s contention that Internet speeds are as low as 5 megabits per second, saying it offers residential speeds up to 40 megabits per second in the Santa Fe market. A company spokesperson said the city may be citing figures for areas that don’t have access to higher speeds, or for customers who aren’t paying for higher speeds.
The city says its figures are a median average of self-reported speed tests anyone can do online on websites like speedtest.net.
A ‘wholesale problem’
The city’s project is a public-private partnership. Santa Fe’s own Cyber Mesa Telecom has a four-year contract with the city to design, build and operate the network.
Santa Fe is certainly not an unserved area. CenturyLink, Comcast, Cyber Mesa, NM Surf and a few other smaller companies service the area.
Bypassing the existing infrastructure is the whole idea behind the project. Again, the city believes that providing an alternative will drive down consumer costs.
Sean Moody of the city’s Economic Development Division is the broadband infrastructure project administrator. He explained the project is a way for Santa Fe to solve its “wholesale problem.”
“The wholesale price offered per megabit in Santa Fe is 30 times higher than what they pay in Albuquerque and Los Angeles,” he said. “The idea here is to disrupt the market on the wholesale side with the expectation that people on the retail side will provide lower prices.”
Moody said the concept grew out of the era of Reaganomics.
“The idea in the Reagan administration was that, by creating competition, there would be technological change and lower prices, and it worked to a large degree,” he said, using the industry’s shift from cooper wire to fiber optics as one example.
This came in the wake of a 1980 federal court decision that led to a deregulation of the telecommunications industry and broke up the AT&T monopoly.
“The Ma Bell system was broken up to allow, idealistically, a level playing field among competitors,” Moody said.
The company that is now CentryLink was one of the pieces created by the Ma Bell break-up and became the “incumbent” owner of the region’s network, yet under law it is obligated to provide its competitors access to the system.
Moody explained that, in the 1980s, when copper wire was being replaced with fiber optics, the network ran from state hub to state hub, with New Mexico’s hub located in Albuquerque and distribution spokes extending to other parts of the state. That “hub and spoke” network remains in place, with the spoke running from Downtown Albuquerque to the CenturyLink central exchange building on East Alameda Street in Santa Fe.
“All of that 60-mile stretch is unregulated,” he said of the spoke from the Duke City to the City Different. “Everywhere a user can get Internet in Santa Fe, their provider has to pay CenturyLink to use that wire. There hasn’t been a second way out of town.”
The only wiggle room retailers have to lower their costs is to get a better wholesale price, he said.
“In a nutshell, the best impact the city can make to solve its Internet problems is for it to solve the wholesale problem,” he said.
Cyber Mesa Telecom owner Jane Hill said, with the new broadband infrastructure, “We hope to attract more competition in that we’ll be wholesaling to others and that the rates will be so attractive that other companies will look to Santa Fe.”
Cyber Mesa got the city’s business in somewhat controversial fashion. Four companies, including CenturyLink, responded to a Request for Proposals two years ago. The city ultimately canceled that process, citing a clause in the procurement code that allows cities to skip the competitive bidding process when it involves a utility, and chose Cyber Mesa.
One company in the running, City Link of Albuquerque, cried foul and threatened to sue the city.
City Link argued it was better suited for the project, having more experience than Cyber Mesa. It also maintained that going through CenturyLink’s central exchange was unnecessary and costly. Its plan was to build a 7-mile loop through town.
“I really respect the record and business model John Brown at City Link has. He’s doing great things in Albuquerque and other places with fibers,” Moody said. “The critical issue for us was he is not a telephone company and wouldn’t have had the legal means to get to the hub, and that was an important part of our program.”
“We’re a telephone company and that gives us a lot more latitude,” Hill said.
For one, it gives Cyber Mesa access to CenturyLink’s central exchange. Its plan is to run fiber optic line roughly parallel to a 2-mile stretch of CenturyLink’s line to the south end of the Railyard.
The project will also benefit state government, Hill said, explaining that the state currently pays CenturyLink to connect between its IT center on St. Francis to the exchange facility downtown. Once the broadband infrastructure project is complete, the state will be able to tie in and, through a trade agreement, Cyber Mesa gets to use bandwidth the state has rights to back to Albuquerque.
“It’s an absolute win-win,” Hill said.
Under Cyber Mesa’s agreement with the city, a company called SF Fiber is formed. For now, it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Cyber Mesa. But if the city chooses to go with another operator when the contract expires in 2018, SF Fiber would be fully transferable.
An important tool
There is one other way out of town through the Internet, but only Santa Fe Community College now has access.
Five years ago, the Regional Economic Development Initiative launched a $74 million federally funded broadband initiative intended to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas of northern New Mexico. The REDINet project will build infrastructure that will eventually extend from Santa Fe to such remote locations as Questa, Tres Piedras, El Rito and Peñasco.
The infrastructure is already in place around Santa Fe and the community college, by virtue of being a state institution, was able to connect.
Since it hooked up in January, the community college “noticed a significant improvement in terms of speed, especially in our classrooms,” said Chris Dela Rosa, SFCC chief information officer. He said classroom Internet speeds are four times faster than they used to be.
It’s also cheaper.
“Most important,” he said, “it’s a good value for our students. Technology affects learning and is an important tool.”
Dela Rosa said the main campus southwest of the city and the recently opened Higher Education Center across from Santa Fe High School are also connected by higher speeds of about one gigabit per second.
Noble, the city’s economic development director, said Santa Fe has to have those kinds of speeds to grow its industries.
“We need that kind of computing capability for the transfer of information. It’s a fundamental building block for our economy,” she said, noting that the growing animation and film industries in Santa Fe can benefit from wider bandwidth to send individual data files.
Simon Brackley, chief executive officer of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, said the broadband project should help small businesses, as well.
“As far as we’re concerned, the broadband project is good news and a good investment by the city,” he said. “I’m not sure it will provide the bandwidth required to send a movie for post production. But if you take a step down to the next level to software companies and the like, it will provide a great benefit.
“It’s mostly about providing better service at more affordable prices, so this will be good for small business.”
Businesses like Brownlow’s studio x, for example.
And while he wants to wait and see the results, he applauds the city for taking the initiative.
“Here’s the government doing what it’s supposed to do: helping out its citizenry,” he said, comparing the project to streets and highways. “It’s one of these things that this is a lot more important than it may appear to be. Improving people’s access to the Internet will help increase what they are able to do and its effects will be felt for a long time.”