Bridging the digital chasm: Luján meets with Homework Gap Team to discuss broadband

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan is seen during an April 2019 press conference. He hosted a roundtable discussion on Feb. 17 about the digital gap in internet service.

AZTEC — The pandemic has brought the state of broadband infrastructure into the forefront as students struggle to do their schoolwork, either due to a lack of internet access or to slow speeds that can’t support multiple children working online in one household.

"The pandemic has made daily life and distance learning nearly impossible for thousands of our school children and teachers, parents and grandparents. And one of the biggest challenges that stands in our way is obtaining broadband services," said Brent Nelson the information technology director of the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, gathered a group known as the Homework Gap Team, which consists of technology experts and educators, for a roundtable discussion on Feb. 17 that was conducted via Zoom.

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"During the debates now around COVID, I've been advocating that a part of this $1.9 trillion package does include funding for closing that broadband gap," he said.

Additionally, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate Commerce and Telecom Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Federal Communications Commission. He asked the panelists for input on future broadband spending and COVID-19 relief packages.

In-person learning has been limited or even non-existent during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has meant students rely on the internet to attend classes, but not every part of New Mexico has access to high-speed internet. 

Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the chief technology director at Santa Fe Indian School, said it is more like a digital chasm than a digital gap that needs to be bridged.

John Chadwick, the education technology coordinator for the New Mexico Public Education Department, said there are even urban broadband deserts that need to be addressed, such as some in Albuquerque.

Hotspots on buses have been used to provide internet service to rural areas of the state, especially tribal communities. But that is a Band-Aid rather than a solution, Sekaquaptewa said. She told a story about a child who got heatstroke trying to do schoolwork outside next to a bus.

Nelson said sending children home with devices to do their schoolwork does not solve the connectivity issues because the middle mile infrastructure needs to be established so that there can be equity for students.

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There are efforts to expand broadband that received praise during the roundtable. In the Navajo Nation, groups like Sacred Wind have been working to expand offerings, Chadwick said. He said working with Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, a family near the Colorado state line received high-speed internet. 

Bob Ballance, the founder of Center for Internet as Infrastructure, said how the internet should be deployed is also a question that needs to be answered. This includes public-private partnerships, private-only and public-only models.

Another challenge he highlighted was with federal funding, including Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auctions. If the FCC standards for what constitutes high-speed internet are increased, census blocks where internet service providers received RDOF funding are blocked off for 10 years from receiving additional funds. This means they may not be able to receive faster internet.

The City of Farmington has been studying broadband and is exploring customer demand for offering internet as a city utility. Initially the city participated in the RDOF auction, but it turned down the funding it was offered for rural census blocks after determining that it would not be financially feasible to develop those census blocks.

One concern Farmington officials expressed while discussing broadband was that some census blocks where internet service providers have received RDOF funds in the past still remain without the internet speeds that the internet service providers received funds to provide.

"When entities receive federal funds to build out into certain areas, they need to be building out," Luján said, adding that if the infrastructure is not built out the money given for that project needs to be returned.

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Gar Clarke, geospatial program manager with the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, said there needs to be more reporting on how money is spent and how many have been connected and with what type of technology.

Rural areas tend to be more expensive to provide internet to because there are fewer and more sparsely located potential customers.

"I firmly believe that when we look at internet connectivity in America it needs to be looked at the same way that the highway system was once looked at," Luján said. "When people said, 'oh, we can't build roads to communities where nobody lives or there's very few people who live there.' Well, if you don't connect to the country, it turns out that you can't get from one big city to the next. You have to go to those small, rural towns and small communities to get there. That's why we had to have this interstate system built in America."

He also highlighted the efforts to connect to electricity, which still has ongoing work needed. Luján said rural electric co-ops played a key role in the efforts to connect households with electricity.

"It's going to take robust, federal investment to close this broadband gap and build out across America," he said. 

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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