SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO – Is your internet too slow? Or too expensive? Are your options for high-speed connectivity slim – or worse — non-existent? Do you lack a computer, or maybe the right know-how, to access the internet?
A meeting Friday, May 12 in Las Cruces presents a chance for residents across the seven-county region comprising Southwest New Mexico to speak up about all things internet-related. This input, part of a series of statewide listening sessions, will factor into a major plan that will guide spending from a huge pool of federal funding – possibly up to $600 million – that could be on the way for broadband upgrades.
The session is a chance to have your voice heard and your community’s internet needs documented – key to funding solutions to problems, state officials say. The meeting, which runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., will offer Spanish interpretation.
Residents, local officials, stakeholders, and internet providers from the following counties that make up Region 5 are expected to attend: Doña Ana, Luna, Catron, Socorro, Sierra, Grant, and Hidalgo. More than 311,000 people reside in these counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.
Southern New Mexico has long faced steep digital disparities, due to its largely rural nature that’s sparse on high-speed infrastructure and its high percentage of low-income residents who can’t afford subscriptions. Some people lack computers or knowledge about using the internet. The divide worsened with the onset of COVID-19, which shifted society toward digital work, school and health care faster than ever before.
Because they lacked internet at home, rural students often had to drive or be driven to a business – like a McDonald’s – to use Wi-Fi for submitting homework during the pandemic, said New Mexico Broadband Director Kelly Schlegel.
“It’s just almost a utility, like gas, water and electric; you have to have broadband now,” she told the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative.
The meeting Friday is free to attend, but state officials are asking residents who plan to do so to pre-register – mostly because organizers will be serving lunch and refreshments and want to make sure there’s enough.
“If people could pre-register, it helps us out on the count,” Schlegel said.
Pre-register here: https://connect.nm.gov/southwest-region-5.html
Friday’s session and other upcoming online and in-person meetings are hosted by the New Mexico Office of Broadband Access and Expansion, spearheading the efforts to close digital divides across the state. The office is instrumental in carrying out the steps needed to secure federal pandemic relief funding through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment, a.k.a. “BEAD,” and Digital Equity Act programs. Both stemmed from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed in late 2021.
Doña Ana County Commissioner Manuel Sanchez said he’s hoping to attend at least part of Friday’s session. The county has been working to bridge high-speed connectivity gaps in his district, including in Garfield and between Hatch and the village of Doña Ana.
“During COVID, it really showed the weaknesses across the county, when you had kids doing remote learning,” he said. “Even in the city of Las Cruces, there are areas where, if they do have service, it’s not really very fast.”
At Friday’s session, attendees will be asked to fill out one of six surveys geared toward different audiences, and there will be round-table discussion.
“You might be an anchor institution like a library,” Schlegel said. “You might be a school or a first responder or a fire department or a community activist. You might be a mom or a dad and say: ‘Hey, we don’t have internet in our area, and my kids can’t do their homework.’”
Residents’ input will shape blueprint
The state in 2022 hosted a series of broadband meetings across New Mexico. Schlegel said those were introductory sessions meant to give officials a chance to meet the people involved in broadband and get a sense of community needs. The current series of meetings will further refine that input, resulting in a state blueprint that catalogs needs, identifies the most cost-effective way to address them, and lays out the expected price tag of those solutions. The blueprint will determine, for instance, whether constructing a new fiber-optic line or setting up a new wireless internet transmitter is the most cost-efficient way to bring high-speed internet to a given community.
New Mexico is slated to find out June 30 how much it will be awarded from the federal government through BEAD and the Digital Equity Act, which are separate from ongoing funding awards for high-speed internet that are made under an earlier measure, the American Rescue Plan Act. State officials’ working estimate is that $600 million could be headed to New Mexico. While that is a hefty amount of money, it still won’t be enough to address every need across the state, Schlegel said. That’s why ongoing legislative support via a state pool, the Connect New Mexico Fund, will be critical.
A series of web-based meetings will take place as part of the listening tour. They tend to be topic- and stakeholder-specific, but they’re open to anyone wanting to attend, including those who can’t go to an in-person session, Schlegel said.
Also, a statewide meeting will take place May 24 to bring together federal administrators, U.S. senators’ offices, the governor and other decision-makers. Schlegel said this meeting is meant to address several big obstacles to equipping residents with high-speed connectivity.
‘It’s quite a big process’
The listening sessions are the first step in several that have to happen before shovels can hit the ground for new projects. The state must submit a five-year broadband infrastructure plan to the federal government in August, a digital equity plan in September, and an “initial proposal” in December, Schlegel said.
“That’s where you show all this modeling of how you’re to use the money you’ve been allocated,” she said.
In 2024, the state will announce grant opportunities, and applicants for new internet projects will make their pitches. Then, the state will send its list of potential awardees to the federal government in a “final proposal” that has to track with its earlier plans, Schlegel said. Approvals will happen on a project-by-project basis.
“The feds say, ‘Yep, it looks like it matches. Go ahead and fund that one,” she said. “It’s quite a big process.”
While the steps are in the right direction, Schlegel cautioned that the internet upgrades and faster speeds could take a few years to be seen in residents’ homes and workplaces, particularly because of equipment and materials supply-chain backlogs that persist.
“When you get money, it’s not instant that you’re connected,” she said.
Diana Alba-Soular is a project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative.