New Mexico Lawmakers Seek to Bridge Rural Broadband Gap

A legislative committee is scheduled to hear testimony from a variety of experts on how high-speed internet can gain a more robust footprint in New Mexico’s rural communities.

by Bruce Krasnow, The Santa Fe New Mexican / October 20, 2016
Experts applaud New York's new broadband expansion plan. Shutterstock

(TNS) -- After failing in previous years to pass significant legislation to boost broadband internet in New Mexico, lawmakers will meet Thursday to try to jump-start efforts for the 2017 legislative session.

A legislative committee is scheduled to meet all day Thursday at the Capitol and will hear testimony from a variety of experts on how high-speed internet can gain a more robust footprint in New Mexico’s rural communities.

“New Mexico’s broadband access and expansion strategies have a direct impact on our job creation and economic future,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, the committee chairman, in a statement about the hearing. “Improving our broadband infrastructure will improve education and New Mexico’s position to compete for high-wage jobs.”

Padilla and Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, co-sponsored a measure in the 2016 session that would have appropriated $950,000 to pay for a study to determine the technical and financial options for extending broadband in the state.

The measure passed one committee in the House and then died.

In an interview, Padilla said there are lots of groups working in broadband from state and local governments to telecommunication companies, nonprofits, the national labs and universities. His goal over the next two months is to get all the parties together and chart a path forward.

“We’re trying to get everybody in the same room and craft legislation to tie it all together,” he said. “I want to hear directly from those who are living it. I want to hear what the real needs are.”

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband internet as a technology that moves information from internet providers through satellites, cable modems or fiber-optic connections into homes or businesses. It is faster and can carry more information than dial-up services that push information through telephone lines, which have limited capacity.

The cost of extending service is expensive, but broadband is readily available in metropolitan areas, such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque, where there are enough customers to cover the costs of the technology.

Nationally, 39 percent of internet users do not have access to broadband, while that number rises to 68 percent in many rural areas of New Mexico and on tribal land, according to Padilla.

On Thursday morning, the hearing will feature public school officials and telehealth experts, who will speak on the need for better internet. Cable and internet providers will speak in the afternoon on plans to expand their networks and what the state can do to help.

The U.S. Agriculture Department also is set to speak about how the federal government can help with broadband expansion in New Mexico.

The 2017 legislative session will convene Jan. 17.

©2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.