[Editor's Note: Because several sessions took place the first and second days of the meeting, this will be a multi-part series of articles.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
The presentation immediately after lunch on Wednesday, Aug. 23, had the title: Grant County Collaboration: Building Interconnectivity. The speakers were Silver City Town Manager Alex Brown, Western New Mexico University Director of Information Technology Jason Collet, and Director of Technology for Silver Consolidated Schools Ben Potts.
"We, Cobre Schools, the hospital and the Silver Schools have been looking to expand broadband," Brown began the discussion. "Both of these gentlemen have talked to me about it, and I've had a conversation with Melanie Goodman of U.S. Sen. Tom Udall's office. In 1995, we negotiated the I-Net. It gave us access to nine fibers of bandwidth and was intended for Community Access Television of Silver City."
A map of the fiber locations includes ones in Silver City at Silver High School, the Silver Schools Administration Building, Western New Mexico University's Watts Hall, Police Dispatch, Silver City Detention Center, Silver City Magistrate Court, Grant County Administration Center, Gila Regional Medical Center, Silver City Police Station, Silver City Library, Silver City Recreation Center and CATS TV. Three locations are in Bayard at the Bayard Magistrate Court, Bayard Division of Motor Vehicles and Cobre High School. The fiber system runs from Tyrone to Hurley.
"I called in these guys, and also internet providers and representatives from the county and the mining district," Brown said. "Comcast owns the infrastructure. I've been trying to talk to them. They told us they were looking at it. They didn't know about it, nor that they gave up some infrastructure. Our attorney made sure language for the I-Net was in the CATS contract."
A handout noted the fiber optic line was 1998 technology and has never been put into full operation. It is 13 years old and its operating ability is unknown until technicians can test the system. It is an analog video/audio network.
Collet described the concept as trying to bring in a large volume of bandwidth and piece it out to various organizations. "We would have to pay for the transport between entities. What we have to establish is a countywide model, so the costs are viable. I would like to collaborate with the local ISPs to where everyone benefits."
Potts remarked that it is "amazing what Dr. (Joseph) Shepard (WNMU president) has done. I did my schooling K-12 here and graduated from Silver High School. I lived in Doña Ana County for 10 years where we had good bandwidth. I got a job in the Silver Schools, and I felt like I had gone back 10 years. I looked at it. At that time the state average was $20 per Megabit (Mb). In Silver City it was $27 per Mb. Silver Schools had a maximum of 8 Mb. The national average is 1 Mb per student. Western at that time had 3,157 students and staff, which by the national average would require 3.15 Gb, and the fastest they could get was 1 Gb. We, at Silver Schools, pay transport of $130,000 to get bandwidth to three schools, with only 6 percent of what we should have. We've been talking about aggregating the administration and school networks. For three years, we've been paying $30,000 for a firewall. For the next level, it would cost $60,000."
"We could work together and get a higher level of service," Potts continued. "I wanted to start with the city and county. Our government entities are keen on collaboration. Mr. Brown is working with Comcast, and we are still waiting on an answer from them. We are still talking about access and we will seek planning grants.
"Once it's built and operational, we will need a stand-alone organization to manage the operations," he continued.
Collet said: "It's so enormous establishing the network because it is a game of dot-to-dots where we can expand. House Bill 113 could help. We have places that want it, and we want the university to be the champion for it. It needs statewide leadership."
Potts agrees that it is a difficult project. "Kindergarten through 12th grade qualifies the schools for e-rates, but I can't hand off the bandwidth to others. Different funding sources will work for me, but not for them. The Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments is working with us on the challenge. It will benefit not only the schools, but also the whole community. A lot of people who want to live here need access to the speeds I need. DSL is classified as broadband. With CenturyLink, my mother has 4 Mb."
"At schools, we're moving to online textbooks," Potts said. "How, if kids don't have sufficient bandwidth can they study? They can't load video."
Brown said the maximum at his house had been 4 Mb. "My wife works from home. We had to tell the kids to stay offline, so she could work. It took me four months to get a Comcast connection, and I live two blocks from the Comcast head."
Collet said Comcast distributes bandwidth by microwave. "I'm not sure if we can us the I-Net. We need to know if the fiber is still viable." And, he noted that Comcast might not be willing to honor the agreement or give up the infrastructure.
Rep. Jason Harper explained that if it is a single optical fiber it might permit only one line. "If you have a bundle of fibers, you can have more than one. When I look at this document, this is one of the older fiber optic lines. It sounds like to me, if it is older, you may need to update it."
Collet said the fiber is aerial, tied to PNM lines on poles. Brown said the fiber optic would be with PNM or CenturyLink lines. "For when the fiber breaks," Collet said.
Potts said the pathways, the routes and the rights-of-way do not end the same way. "That is when e-rate could pay for fiber. We suggested a fiber ring to reroute to have more connectivity. It's about building capacity and redundancy. The university had a denial of service. If we had had the ring, they could have sent it through us. My largest elementary school has 1 Gb. We own the fiber to a school that has 10 Gb."
Harper said it sounded like it is a resource that they could tap into, "presuming you can keep it, and that the fiber is still viable."
Collet said the 10 Gb wave could tap into the connectivity, but "only if we can share with folks."
Harper asked if they could connect wirelessly.
"Right now only Ethernet could come through the wave," Collet said.
Harper said: "Whatever we can do, let us know."
Rep. James Smith said HB 113 is part of the Do It Act. "How has that progressed? HB113 allowed aggregation points to go out to the consolidated schools."
Collet said all of the universities contribute on how it is distributed. "We have had no discussion on the progression of HB113."
Smith said a lot of bills on broadband were passed during the last legislative session. SB24 allows for local governments to go for bonds for broadband.
Brown said the town hadn't looked at it yet. "It is something I will look at. Perhaps it can go through Grant County, since all of the I-Net is in Grant County.
Smith said the county could issue general obligation bonds. SB 63 changed SB 9 money to put funding toward school infrastructure.
Potts said the school had applied to attach the administration building to the elementary school. "We didn't get the funding, because almost all the contractors and money went to the Albuquerque Public Schools. We had one applicant, and we will drop $50,000 off our costs when it goes live in November."
Rep. Candie Sweetser, who is co-chair of the committee and was moderating the meeting, said: "When Deming went dark (losing all internet access), with the cut in the one point of access coming to us, many restaurants went dark. Everything stopped. That was when we started looking at redundancy."
Collet compared it to imagining if all the toilets stopped working or there was no water. "Data must be seen for the resource it is."
The next article will address Using Mixed Technologies to Build Reliable Connectivity in Rural Areas.