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New Mexico Lawmaker Pushes Bill to Reauthorize Broadband Grants

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico has introduced legislation to reauthorize a broadband grant program and refocus it specifically on rural communities. The bill would reauthorize the program for another five years.

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(TNS) — U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico has introduced legislation to reauthorize a broadband grant program and refocus it specifically on rural communities.

The grant is one of many ways the federal government is putting money toward broadband.

"Across the country, 30% of our rural and our tribal communities don't have access to high speed Internet ... And we have over 100,000 homes and businesses in New Mexico that don't have high speed Internet. In fact, our state is ranked 43rd in the nation right now for access to high speed Internet," said Stansbury, a Democrat.

The Community Connect grant program is one of the major federal grant programs that funds broadband infrastructure in communities, Stansbury said. The bill would reauthorize the program for another five years. Sen. Tina Smith, D- Minnesota, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

"We are hopeful that it gets reauthorized, and it will help to expand access for over 8 million households and will help to serve huge portions of our rural and our tribal communities," Stansbury said.

The Department of Agriculture-administered grant program requires a 15% non-federal match and has a $5 million award ceiling.

From 2013 to 2021, there were no New Mexico recipients listed for USDA Community Connect grant awards, but there is a lot of federal broadband funding coming into the state.

The USDA-administered ReConnect grant and loan program has had numerous New Mexico recipients. An incomplete accounting of the 2023 New Mexico ReConnect recipients includes:

  • SWC Telesolutions Inc. — $9.3 million grant for a fiber project in Doña Ana and Sierra counties
  • Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative — $13.9 million grant to deploy fiber in Chaves, Eddy, Otero and Lincoln counties
  • Central New Mexico Electric Cooperative — $24.8 million to deploy fiber in Torrance County
  • Continental Divide Electric Cooperative — $21.7 million to deploy fiber in Cibola and McKinley counties.

Last year, the Taos-based Kit Carson Electric Cooperative Inc. received a $23 million ReConnect grant. The money will be used to bring fiber Internet to 4,000 subscribers from Abiquiú to Gallina. One of the anchor institutions for the new broadband service is Coronado High School in Gallina, Kit Carson Electric Co-op CEO Luis Reyes said.

"It's really leveling the playing field for rural people to have the same amenities that urban people may have in the sense of access to services via broadband," Reyes said.

Building fiber infrastructure will allow subscribers to take advantage of remote work opportunities, telehealth and distance learning, Reyes said.

Under another program, nearly $700 million is coming into the state for broadband infrastructure from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

"That bill included $65 billion for broadband, and of that $675 million of those dollars have been headed toward New Mexico. But actually getting that broadband infrastructure in place and then into people's homes is the next challenge," Stansbury said.

New Mexico has also put state dollars in its Connect New Mexico program. Reyes, who is on the Connect New Mexico Council, said the state-administered grants play an important role and complement the work supported by the USDA-administered grants.

"Some of those grants really can identify those areas that may not play well at the national level, but at the local level, we're able to get monies to communities that really need the broadband connectivity that may not have a leader in that community to do it," Reyes said. "With what's happening in rural areas, a lot of the electric co-ops are starting to pick up that leadership role. But in some areas, there may not be an electric co-op, or there may not be someone who's familiar with how to make grants for those areas."

While the USDA Connect grant program has existed for more than a decade, the state's New Mexico Broadband program was established in 2021, and Reyes has seen an increase in broadband funding opportunities.

"There's grant money at the SEC. There's grant money at the Department of Commerce. So, there's a lot of money for rural applications, if you write a competitive, solid grant (application)," Reyes said.

However, Reyes believes more funding is required to build the needed infrastructure.

"It really has made an impact. I don't think though it's enough money, because we're so far behind in being connected in New Mexico. It's such a steep hill to climb," Reyes said.

The 1st Congressional District that Stansbury represents encompasses the Albuquerque metro area, part of Sandoval and Valencia counties, and major rural counties in central and eastern New Mexico.

"We have homes, households, businesses, ranchers, who don't have access to Internet at all, much less high speed Internet. For example, in Fort Sumner, which is on the eastern side of our district, that's ranching country, we have huge numbers of rural constituents out there that don't have access to Internet. Of course, that not only impacts their ability to access everything that's available through the Internet, but also affects their economic opportunities through their ranches and businesses," Stansbury said.

©2023 the Albuquerque Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.