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New Mexico Studies Ongoing Broadband Access Challenges

Officials with the New Mexico Department of Information Technology acknowledged Monday the state has not done enough to prepare for wide expansion of broadband access, particularly across tribal lands.

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(TNS) — Officials with the New Mexico Department of Information Technology acknowledged Monday the state has not done enough to prepare for wide expansion of broadband access, particularly across tribal lands.

It also remains unclear how the state will fund a project expected to cost more than $1 billion over several years.

Acting Information Technology Secretary Raja Sambandam; agency project director Gar Clarke; and Matt Schmit, the incoming broadband adviser for the state's new Office of Broadband Access and Expansion, presented an overview of broadband initiatives Monday to the Legislative Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee.

Lawmakers on the panel raised concerns about a scarcity of details — including an accounting of just how many state residents are unable to connect to the internet — and the lack of progress in working with tribes to set up right-of-way agreements ahead of an infusion of federal money for the project.

"You don't have a plan," Rep. Harry Garcia, D- Grants, told Sambandam, Schmit and Clarke.

States are eligible for up to $100 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to boost internet connectivity.

Sen. Bill Tallman D- Albuquerque, said the $100 million in federal aid won't go very far. During another recent legislative hearing, he said, lawmakers learned it might cost at least $1.5 billion over several years to get the program fully operational.

Schmit, tapped earlier this month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to develop a three-year broadband expansion plan, agreed the statewide cost "will likely exceed $1 billion."

Schmit, who does not start in his new job until early December, said his office is expected to present a framework of the broadband plan during the upcoming regular legislative session, which begins in mid-January. The deadline to use the federal pandemic aid for broadband work is 2026, he added.

"This isn't a solution we will be able to achieve overnight," he said.

New Mexico legislators eager to improve broadband access — a problem spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as shutdowns forced students and workers to turn to remote platforms — provided $100 million for broadband efforts and another $7 million in capital outlay during the regular 2020 legislative session. They also created a new broadband office to centralize initiatives that previously had been handled by several state agencies.

A summer 2020 report by the Legislative Finance Committee estimated between 13 percent and 20 percent of New Mexico's 200,000 homes and businesses did not have broadband access at the time. An analysis by ranked the state 42nd — behind neighboring states Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Utah — when it comes to connectivity.

The state installed hundreds of internet access "hot spots," Clarke told lawmakers Monday, but he said it's not an ideal way to provide the service: "It's not the way to teach kids if they have to drive through the parking lot and do homework."

He and his colleagues spoke of efforts to use recently approved funds from the Legislature and federal government to get libraries, public schools and tribal facilities better connected.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns about right-of-way agreements with tribes.

"Have you had any real discussion with the Navajo Nation in regards to how we have to address the right-of-way issues?" asked Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R- Corrales. "That's a big, big issue."

Clarke said the agencies must enter into "serious discussion" with all tribal communities about the issue.

"You're totally correct," he said. "We haven't done enough."

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D- Las Cruces, the subcommittee chairwoman, said the agencies have a "heavy lift" in front of them.

"Broadband connectivity is a human right," she added.

After the hearing, Tallman said "it's hard to get a handle" on what the state is doing to improve broadband access.

"It's also hard to get a handle on how much money we already have committed and how much is still available through grant applications yet to be completed," he said.

© 2021 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.