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As Farmington considers offering internet as a utility, the focus may shift to urban areas

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Farmington is continuing to explore options to provide high-speed broadband internet to utility customers in its service area, however it could shift its focus from rural areas to the urban areas.

The Public Utility Commission heard a feasibility report when it met this week via Zoom. People who missed the meeting can view the presentation at fmtn.org/AgendaCenter.

The PUC agreed with the city staff recommendation to turn down federal funding for development of broadband in a couple rural areas of the county as the staff has determined that would not be economical. Instead, staff suggested pivoting from focusing on the rural areas to a phased approach starting with the urban areas of the Farmington Electric Utility System's service area. This would start with a telephone survey to further gauge customer interest as well as other public outreach efforts.

Read more:NM Supreme Court temporarily halts evictions due to coronavirus

The urban areas include the City of Farmington east to the Aztec city limits and into Bloomfield. The City of Aztec is not included in the urban areas because Farmington does not provide utilities to people within Aztec city limits.

The measure will go to the Farmington City Council next and the PUC unanimously voted to recommend the City Council turn down the federal funding.

The funding comes from the city entering the Rural Development Opportunity Fund auction. During this auction, various entities bid on developing broadband infrastructure in underserved, rural census tracts. This resulted in Farmington being awarded $3.2 million for census tracts in the Cedar Hill, Blanco and Waterflow areas.

More:City Council OKs bidding for federal grant to fund broadband development for FEUS

Farmington utility financial analyst Olena Erickson said the funding the city received was for rural areas and recommended turning it down in order to focus on urban areas.

Doug Dawson, owner and president of CCG Consulting, said Windstream and CenturyLink also won funds to develop census tracts in San Juan County during the auction. 

"The little pieces that they left for you don't make a very good business plan," he said.

Windstream was awarded $5.1 million for census tracts in eastern San Juan County and CenturyLink received $2 million for census tracts in the La Plata area. Both companies have five years to build the network in those areas. 

Hank Adair

FEUS Director Hank Adair said focusing on the urban area does not mean the city is not interested in serving customers in rural areas. He said the utility could gain experience in the urban area that could be translated to the rural areas. Adair said there is a better chance for FEUS to be successful if it starts with the urban area.

A survey of FEUS customers found that 45% of people were not receiving the speeds they were paying for and another 32% were unsure if they were receiving the speeds they were paying for. The survey also found that 54% of people were unhappy with the value of the internet service they received.

Others are reading:PRC extends utility disconnection moratorium, but says legislative action is needed

None of these steps guarantee that Farmington will move forward with becoming an internet service provider and, in the past, some city councilors have expressed concerns about competing with the private sector.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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