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Affordability, access among the broadband challenges New Mexicans faces

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — With people working from home, conducting virtual meetings and participating in distance learning, the need for broadband infrastructure has become more apparent than in the past.

Broadband infrastructure provides internet access, but the availability of this infrastructure is not equally available throughout the state.

“The need for reliable and accessible broadband for rural New Mexico has never been greater,” New Mexico Department of Information Technology Cabinet Secretary John Salazar told lawmakers on Aug. 17.

The New Mexico Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee discussed broadband during a virtual meeting that was conducted via Zoom and can be watched online at nmlegis.gov.

Legislative committees have been meeting to learn about issues facing New Mexico as they draft bills that could be introduced during the 2021 legislative session.

Without broadband access, New Mexicans may not be able to work and students may not be able to access classes.

There’s an estimated $154.2 million of investment in broadband infrastructure that will occur in the near future in New Mexico, including on Navajo Nation lands, according to Salazar.

Kendra Karp, the director of the Office of Broadband, said it will cost at least $1 billion to provide broadband to most unserved locations. This would be done through a combination of fiber and fixed wireless. The fixed wireless infrastructure is more limited than fiber and needs to be replaced more frequently.

The pandemic has led to a switch in focus for the Department of Information Technology, Salazar said. In the past, the broadband investments have focused on schools and public spaces. Salazar said the pandemic has led to a change in focus to provide internet access to homes and businesses.

“New Mexico has lagged the nation in broadband access...for quite some time,” said Brian Hoffmeister, a program evaluator for the Legislative Finance Committee.

He said as of 2018 only three quarters of New Mexico households had access to broadband internet service and he does not think that number has changed much in the past two years.

Hoffmeister presented some of the challenges and efforts in New Mexico to address gaps in broadband access.

One of those challenges is the lack of a single entity to oversee broadband infrastructure. Hoffmeister said the state Legislature should designate an entity to serve in that role.

The Department of Information Technology houses the Office of Broadband currently, which Hoffmeister said is nominally the lead agency.

“There’s not a strong law in place that does set aside and establish who is in charge of broadband for the state and give it a specific and dedicated mission,” Hoffmeister said.

Even when the broadband infrastructure is available, Salazar said households may not have internet access.

“Just because broadband is available in an area doesn’t mean it’s affordable,” he said.

Gar Clarke, the state geospatial information officer, said funding and additional staff are needed to meet the goals set out for broadband in New Mexico.

Additional funding could allow the Department of Information Technology to hire grant writers to help the state access more funding for broadband projects, Salazar said.

The committee meeting continues on Aug. 18 with discussions of broadband access and distance learning as well as options for lower-cost infrastructure.

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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