Despite investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, access to broadband services has remained out of reach for many New Mexicans in rural and impoverished areas.

And the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated that problem, especially when it comes to public school students trying to learn remotely.

That’s the message members of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee heard from a number of lawmakers, experts and members of the public during a Tuesday hearing on the issue.

“We don’t need to talk about the need; we need to talk about the how — how are we going to do this?” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque.

Figueroa is one of five House legislators, all Democrats, pushing for passage of House Bill 10, an initiative that would create a broadband division within the New Mexico Department of Information Technology. The committee voted 8-1 to approve the measure, sending it on to the House Appropriations Committee.

The proposed department would serve as a center of operations to provide planning and technical assistance to local governments, state agencies and public education institutions to develop and initiate broadband programs. Assistance would include guidance in applying for funding for such initiatives.

The goal, Figueroa said, is to create a central state agency focused on expanding affordable broadband access to all parts of the state.

So far, that’s been a challenging task. A state legislative report in the summer said New Mexico needs to centralize its oversight of broadband services. In late 2019, a Legislative Finance Committee report urged lawmakers to create a single agency in statute to handle that job.

New Mexico often ranks near or at the bottom in national studies when it comes to broadband capability. A 2020 analysis ranked the state 42nd in the country when it comes to connectivity.

As the many speakers who voiced support for the bill said during Tuesday’s virtual hearing, the state continues to face a particularly critical need during the pandemic, which is forcing many to stay at home and prompting public schools to conduct learning online.

Gilbert Guadiana, who said he lives in the Cobre Consolidated School District in Grant County, told the committee members that despite the use of 150 mobile internet devices, connections for students there remain slow and service spotty.

He said broadband access is slowly becoming part of the “brick-and-mortar component” of public education facilities and thus needs more support.

“The need is going to grow, with or without COVID,” he said.

Others echoed that thought, including Alisa Diehl, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty who represents some of the plaintiffs in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit — a landmark public education case that contends New Mexico has not done enough to provide proper resources for at-risk students. She said equitable broadband access is necessary for those students to succeed.

“Access to technology was essential before the pandemic, and it will be after the pandemic is over,” she said. “But right now, it is urgent.”

The bill’s fiscal impact report says that since 2015, the Legislature has appropriated some $21.1 million for broadband access projects, including infrastructure.

HB 10 comes with a $950,000 appropriation from the general fund for many measures, including hiring staff, to get the new division going.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, cast the lone dissenting vote. He said he believes that in the near future “more than half of us will get internet through satellite.”

As such, he said, the bill is “not a prudent use of our limited tax dollars” now.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate. It is scheduled to be considered in the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee, though no date has yet been set for that hearing, according to the legislative website.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(7) comments

Rebecca Salazar

Having worked with LECs (Local Exchange Carriers) throughout the state for over 20 years, the issue has always been that there is no ROI (Return On Investment) for the carries to invest in the infrastructure required to provide "true" broadband services to the rural areas throughout the state, the take for the carriers is just not there. Fifteen years ago there were industrial areas in Albuquerque where you couldn't even get anything faster than T1 speeds, much less DSL with faster speeds, and now you think you're going to get "true" broadband to schools districts like Roy/Mosquero, Magdalena and other small schools districts or towns. There is already a broadband bureau within the Department of Information Technology, but there is not much they can do except providing education and outreach to users in underserved areas. The issue is not new and can't be resolved by establishing another government entity. Even when there were federal grants (BTOP) or low interest RUS loans available, some LECs were and are unwilling to apply due to the regulations and restrictions placed on them.

Harvey Morgan II

CenturyLink doesn't improve anything until they are pushed into doing so. The Electric Co-ops ought to be pushed into providing fiber optic along the lines they have a right of way for. Lots of GOP officials cry about the problems their constituents have with Zoom, etc., but do not support paying for improvements. The broadband issue needs funded now along with sternly prodding the utilities to do their part.

Pablo Blarto

The Martinez administration fought tirelessly to implement something like this during her tenure. Mr. Ackley is correct - there is already a program in place, but the legislature (being the political goons they are) lowballed on the funding. Now that there is a new administration in place, it seems that the only goal here is to hand this Governor a political win. No Kathy, there is not "lots of internet bandwidth." Anyone even remotely familiar with this particular situation would know that there is a very serious lack of infrastructure in this state when it comes to internet. I hope they find success this time, too bad the people that had the idea first got screwed simply because of politics.

Rebecca Salazar

The Martinez administration was not the first administration of implementing something like this. The issue has existed and was identified way before she was elected. I do agree with your statement, "No Kathy, there is not "lots of internet bandwidth", though. The carriers are in the business of turning a profit, they cannot even break even, much less make a profit from investing millions of dollars of infrastructure in rural areas. There are just not enough subscribers to make any $ or an incentive for them to invest. Creating another agency that has no ability to authority to make a real difference is just a waste of $.

Darryl Ackley

You mean, something like this?

It's existed for years, but repeatedly been left unfunded once the federal grant money that created it expired. Maybe this is the year.

Kathy Fish

School will resume. Let's remember the result of all the fiber optic infrastructure installation of 10 years ago: surveillance cameras on every street corner. Very often, big budget items are masked in 'help the people' rhetoric when they are truly meant to oppress us. Existing telephone and cable lines provide lots of internet bandwidth.

David Gunter

"Existing telephone and cable lines provide lots of internet bandwidth."

This is one of the most moronic comments I've seen in the New Mexican in some time. It is true of cable lines, for the lucky few who live in locations served by cable. This is minority of the state's student population unfortunately. As for telephone line capacity, it is poor throughout most of the state.

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