Kimball Sekaquaptewa relayed a story that underscored the internet connectivity crisis many students in New Mexico have faced over the past year.
Sekaquaptewa, the chief technology officer at Santa Fe Indian School, spoke of a student who suffered heatstroke in the fall as he sat outside a Wi-Fi hot spot in his community because he lacked internet access at home.
During a virtual roundtable Tuesday with members of the New Mexico Homework Gap Team, hosted by U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, she said the need to expand broadband access to rural areas of the state, especially Native communities, has never been higher.
The team is a mix of state, federal and nonprofit leaders created to help solve students’ home connectivity issues.
“We all know that those things can’t continue,” Sekaquaptewa said. “But I think we have great momentum for long-term solutions here. If there is a silver lining, it’s that the state and the tribes are creating long-term solutions.”
Luján said it is important to keep the connectivity issue on the front burner because 1 in 4 students lacks a reliable or any internet connection. He added that his role on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will help him be a voice in confronting the challenges of providing internet access in rural areas.
“I still don’t understand how someone can board a plane in Los Angeles, stay connected at 30,000 feet, fly over rural America and land in New York, and they stay connected to the internet at a decent speed,” Luján said. “Why can’t we stay connected to all those rural communities you’re flying over?’”
Team members said the state is making gains in improving internet access in some areas.
John Chadwick, education technology coordinator for the state Public Education Department, said local internet service providers have helped provide connectivity in areas of Northern New Mexico — specifically in Peñasco and communities north of Taos, thanks to Kit Carson Electric Cooperative.
However, he pointed out terrain can affect the quality of internet access, and companies might have to navigate several jurisdictions to provide some rural areas with fiber-optic cable, which can be a daunting process.
“It’s going across what’s considered the checkerboard, which is a mixture of private land, federal land and tribal land,” Chadwick said. “I’m not sure what the history is behind that, but it is an issue.”
Brent Nelson, the information technology director for the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education, said price and internet quality also are issues, especially for Native families. He said there is a need to make high-speed internet available to Navajo students.
While progress is being made, he emphasized many students are still being shut out of online classrooms because they either lack internet access or speed to stay online.
“Navajo Nation has struggled with these challenges for decades,” Nelson said. “Despite the fact that we are experiencing a historic public health crisis that has threatened the basic existence of our culture and our families, we are facing increased limitations to remain connected during mandatory quarantine periods.”
Chadwick said the Federal Communications Commission’s required minimum download-to-upload speed ratio of 25-to-3 megabits of data per second is inadequate, especially for larger families. He added the need to upgrade internet access is almost as important as providing it to needed areas.
“If you have one student in the household, it might work some of the time,” Chadwick said. “If you have multistudent households, it is not going to work. … We need better standards.”