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Federal Funds to Bring Broadband to New Mexico Tribal Lands

According to political leaders and broadband officials at a summit this week, New Mexico will get between $100 million and $700 million in federal funding to expand broadband capacity for underserved communities.

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(TNS) — Laurence Peña has a dream for this pueblo of 800 people about 20 miles north of Santa Fe.

“Every single home connected to fiber lines,” said Peña, the director of economic development planning for San Ildefonso LLC.

“It’s necessary for our overall economic development plan,” he said, adding 60 percent of the pueblo has no broadband access and the other 40 percent has slow, limited access.

It’s time for the pueblo to catch up with federal broadband standards, Peña said Wednesday, when several state and federal officials visited San Ildefonso as part of a local broadband summit.

The pueblo could see major improvements after receiving a nearly $5 million grant in December from the federal Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to install fiber-optic cables and cellphone towers.

Additional federal funding is coming to New Mexico to expand broadband access, political leaders and broadband officials said at a summit, held at the Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder.

New Mexico is poised to receive between $100 million and $700 million in federal funding to expand broadband capacity for underserved communities. The money, part of a $42 billion program of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, will be announced by the end of June.

Studies show one in five New Mexicans, or about 400,000 people, do not have Internet access.

The state is ranked among the bottom 10 in the nation when it comes to affordable Internet access, according to a report from the policy organization BroadbandNow.

Alan Davidson, assistant U.S. secretary of commerce and an NTIA administrator, said the funds won’t solve the problem quickly.

The timing for providing services will depend on federal approval of the state’s five-year broadband expansion plan, including to rural and tribal communities, he told about 300 people who gathered for the event.

New Mexico faces a late August deadline to submit the plan.

But, Davidson added, “We’ve been talking about the digital divide in this country for over 20 years ... and we finally have the resources to do something about it.”

He said “2023 is a critical year” for making it happen.

Federal and state officials have long been looking for ways to ensure all or most of New Mexico is connected to the Internet, particularly after broadband deficiencies became evident during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

New Mexicans who did not have adequate Internet service had difficulty accessing virtual health services and ensuring their children and grandchildren could do homework online, said U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who moderated two panel talks about the issue at Wednesday’s summit.

“We know the difference between fast Internet, slow Internet and no Internet,” he said.

The pandemic highlighted severe gaps in broadband service around the state, particularly in rural and tribal communities, Luján said.

That affected the ability of students learning remotely to access their lesson plans and homework assignments, he said.

Peña said his children had a tough time finding a way to get online during the pandemic. And even when the worst of the pandemic had subsided and students were attending school in person, he added, children in the pueblo would return each day to homes with no access.

“The bandwidth was not there. We could not get to Zoom or do homework assignments,” he said.

Peña hopes the pueblo can start building its broadband infrastructure in the fall, with a goal of having full Internet up and running by spring 2024.

Peña said having access to the Internet won’t be enough to overcome a digital divide in the community.

Many members of the pueblo — including elders who may have never worked on a computer — will require training on the kinds of opportunities broadband access will open for them.

“It’s part of bringing us together; it makes sure we are connected to everyone else,” he said.

©2023 The Santa Fe New Mexican, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.