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Broadband Network to Connect Underserved in Sierra County, N.M.

A $6.1 million federal grant will allow Sacred Wind Communications to deploy a 271-mile fiber-optic network to connect about 1,600 people who live in zones where many residents lack access to high-speed broadband.

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(TNS) — Sacred Wind Communications is using a $6.1 million federal grant to extend broadband coverage in rural Sierra County through a new partnership with Sierra Electric Cooperative.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $20 million in grants in late October to four New Mexico telecom companies to build out high-speed Internet in underserved rural areas. The grants will connect up some 1,400 homes, businesses and public buildings in seven rural counties, according to New Mexico's congressional delegation, which pushed for the funding through the USDA's Reconnect Program.

In Sierra County, the grant will allow Sacred Wind to deploy a new, 271-mile fiber optic network to directly connect about 1,600 people who reside in zones where 75% of residents report lack of access to high-speed broadband. Sacred Wind will piggy back off Sierra Electric infrastructure, said Sacred Wind CEO John Badal.

"The co-op reached out to us to partner with them on providing broadband to their customers because they don't have the in-house expertise to do it," Badal told the Journal. "We're doing the final preparation work now and staking out the exact routes to run fiber to homes. The co-op is helping us identify each pole that will have fiber attached to it."

Construction will begin in a few weeks and conclude by year-end 2021.

"Customers will start receiving service as we finish segments," Badal said. "We'll light them up as we go."

It's the first such local broadband partnership between a rural telecom company and an electric cooperative, Badal said. But he hopes it will inspire more joint efforts, ideally through a statewide strategy to replace individual, isolated projects with a centrally-coordinated approach to bridge the digital divide.

"I've been saying for years that we need a statewide plan," Badal said. "We need a central, coordinated effort that pulls in all state and federal resources to accelerate things. The COVID pandemic has shown us how urgent that is."

That's especially critical in Native American communities, where lack of broadband is particularly acute. Federal funding has helped to extend coverage there, but a lot more is needed, said Irene Flannery, director of AMERIND Critical Infrastructure, which assists tribes in deploying high-speed Internet.

A new Federal Communications Commission program to award unassigned spectrum in the 2.5 gigahertz band for free to tribal entities may help. The FCC awarded 154 licenses last month, 16 of them for New Mexico tribes.

It's processing another 350 license requests from tribes nationwide. But advocates want the FCC to accept more applications, because the pandemic impeded many tribes from meeting an August deadline to apply.

"We're happy to see many New Mexico pueblos among the first list of licensees," Flannery said. "But many more in New Mexico and elsewhere were unable to apply because of COVID-19."

©2020 the Albuquerque Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.