Heleen Archuleta lives 16 miles from Cuba High School.
It might as well be a million miles when it comes to the technological tools she has at her disposal.
Archuleta, a sophomore who aspires to become a nursing technician, has no electricity or reliable internet connection at her home in Counselor. Cuba Independent Schools placed a solar panel on her family’s property to help provide power, but it stopped working after two weeks.
She spends four hours on a school bus, she said at a virtual news conference Thursday with U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, and would like to see a Wi-Fi hotspot become a main feature on the bus.
The service would help her and other students with their schoolwork during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond, Archuleta said.
Luján, a Northern New Mexico Democrat, held the discussion to provide an update on his efforts to help bridge the digital divide for students throughout the state.
Archuleta’s story had a familiar ring to it.
Betty MacArthur, a mother of five children from Bluewater, said they get such a small amount of data usage from their satellite internet provider that she often takes her children into Thoreau, 20 miles away, to use hotspots on school buses.
Ben Glickler, director of technology for Deming Public Schools, said his district, which stretches to the border with Mexico, is among the poorest in the nation. Internet service is a luxury many families there can’t afford.
About 1 in 6 students from neighboring Palomas, Mexico, attends schools in the Deming district, creating a unique connectivity problem amid the pandemic.
“COVID didn’t create these problems, but it definitely revealed them in a much stronger way than it did previously,” Glickler said.
Luján said his role as a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation played a part in his focus on internet connectivity as an important issue, especially in New Mexico.
He said he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, recently introduced legislation to allow schools to be reimbursed for installing Wi-Fi on buses. Luján also co-sponsored a bill he had worked on previously as a House member to invest $94 billion in increasing broadband access.
“What better way to help [students] get homework done than on an hour drive to school?” Luján said. “It’s just more time where you can get connected. If we’re able to do that, I think we will create safer environments and more robust learning environments, as well.”
A particular concern Luján addressed was upload speed, which can get lost in the discussion on internet access.
The commonly held notion that the acceptable minimum download-to-upload speed of 25-to-3 megabits per second does not work when families are using more upload speed for video purposes, he said. The more people who share a single network, the slower the speed becomes, which then leads to choppy video quality or disconnection.
MacArthur said she did not turn on her laptop’s camera during the talk because she was afraid she would lose her connection.
“I’m not sure how other families are doing it,” MacArthur said. “I think they don’t. When we were driving to the bus, we didn’t see hardly any kids there besides ours. They are like, ‘We can’t do this.’ ”
Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for Santa Fe Public Schools, compared the internet connectivity issue with the country’s road system prior to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. That bill appropriated more than $26 billion to construct the modern interstate highway system. Ryan said a similar step might be needed to provide strong internet access all over the U.S.
The Santa Fe district is taking part in a national study on home broadband that will make recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission regarding digital bandwidth consumption, Ryan said, adding the Southwestern part of the U.S. generally has poorer internet access compared to larger cities and both coasts.
“This is another one of those things that there needs to be an expectation that every family has access to these resources,” he said.