By Mary Alice Murphy
At the beginning of the meeting, Kitty Clemens, Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments economic recovery specialist, asked people to speak about their concerns with broadband or lack thereof.
"Our purpose is to capture citizen's comments," Clemens said. "It is important to record public engagement. New rules now allow new opportunities for service providers. What you say tonight will support a statewide map of unserved and underserved areas for broadband."
She introduced Dianne Lindstrom of the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, and Paulo Pedreschi, the NMPSFA operations manager.
"We ask you to come to the podium and face the audience with your comments," Clemens said, "and say why you are here."
This author was invited to speak first. She talked about her frustration with trying different internet service providers and ending up trying to run a digital business with mediocre broadband, which varies from OK on some days to dismal on others.
Bob Ahrend said he started with dial-up internet connection, then tried satellite from two different providers Wi-Power and Verizon Home. "They advertise up to 200 mbps download and 2 mbps upload. They put fliers out our way, and we tried them. They do not provide those speeds. I've signed up for Starlink. It's expensive, but it might be faster."
David Meszler, WNM Communications general manager, said a large part of Silver City has DSL. "We would like to bring fiber to more areas in the greater Silver City region. We provide fixed wireless and fiber. We also support an affordable consistency program. Give us a call."
Matthew Brown of WNM said he has been with the company since 2013, from before when it was BroCom. We are trying to fix the exact issues we just heard. For the past eight years, we have been working at it. We have fiber optic in this building. We are highly aware of connection issues. Our coverage area is more than 15,000 square miles in southwest New Mexico all the way to Reserve. If we can work together to get funding, we are feverishly working to bring broadband to the larger community."
Nick Prince, Silver City councilor, said he has been working in computer tech for 23 years. "We have a number of issues in the community. Doing transaction processes requires internet connectivity. New businesses require digital access. If there is not public funding, we couldn't provide the last mile connectivity. People, such as students, have been going to parking lots to get connectivity. Hopefully soon, we will have low-earth connectivity. Hopefully, we will not be just privately funding operations. We hope to have infrastructure that is inclusive."
Lillian Galloway, Silver City Public Library assistant director, said the library does help out with public computers and wifi. "It helps fill the gaps, but it's not a solution. We see a lot of people who get computers, but can't use them because they don't have home connectivity. We want to help out."
Melanie Goodman, Sen. Ben Ray Lujan field representative, said thanks to the public schools and the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments for doing a lot to get connectivity. "The senator has heard all this before, about students having to drive to McDonald's or parking lots to get connectivity. We don't just want the connections, but affordability, too. Today Senator Lujan just held a hearing to deal will billions of dollars available to communities. I'm here to listen so I can take back information to the senator."
Randy Villa, interim Grant County manager, said, he, too, was there to listen and learn "how we can collaborate with the schools. So many students fell through the cracks during the pandemic."
Priscilla Lucero, SWNM COG executive director, said the COG members, including municipalities, counties, water districts, schools, etc. in the four counties, talk about broadband a lot. "I've been serving the COG for 34 years. We were one of the recipients of funding for a plan about five years ago, but nothing has changed. I'm grateful to WNM Communications for reaching out to families, especially low-income ones. Some are bi-lingual and don't want to open doors to us. It's disturbing to see people drive up to the library, for instance, just to get a signal so they can do their homework. When the school districts got connectivity to every low-income family, the students didn't know how to log in with their new tablets. Because of the education attainment of their parents, they didn't know how to log in either. Some areas of the county are unserved, and some are underserved. The concerns for me are the unserved. It is important to me that this it at the forefront of our minds. When the Department of Transportation was talking about the project to widen highway 180, I asked what we are doing to put in conduit for fiber. I was happy to know the DOT is putting in conduit as part of the project."
She noted that one of the four counties she oversees are using remote telescopes for economic development. Another economic development concern is public safety and law enforcement. For Freeport-McMoRan, it's a concern on how to get a work force going for their needs if the students don't have a way to drive to the university to get certification.
"As we move forward, we will need more infrastructure," Lucero said. "It's difficult for local governments to keep up. We have money available, but the biggest challenge when people want to apply for it is they don't have the capability or the capacity to do so."
Silver Consolidated Schools Superintendent Will Hawkins referred to the talk about affordable internet connectivity. "We provided laptops to the students, but they didn't have access to wifi. We got hotspots temporarily for them. We have access to Starlink, but it, too, is temporary. We need to have connectivity for students to engage and to thrive, and to help them grow and connect to resources."
Sharon Offutt, Freeport community development specialist, said Freeport works on the work force and sustainability. "Personally, we did face challenges with Covid and not enough internet access or slow internet. All our job applications are online now."
Cory Webb of WNM Communications said: "We are invested in the community. We did set up hot spots to give access to internet for students and others. We are local; we live here. We want to see the community thrive and grow. We want to keep moving forward."
Jason Collett, Western New Mexico University Communications director, said he wants to see New Mexico communications thrive. "Everyone has his own vantage point. It will require a nuanced solution and some years. The internet is comparable to other resources. Just about everything come from the internet, and not having broadband, we are out of luck. We have less internet access than Guam. We are way behind. Starlink is a solution, but it has issues with heat. WNM Communications is a private company serving the community by bringing in infrastructure. Our No. 1 problem here in Grant County is the brain drain. Remote desktop working can be anywhere in the world. Broadband is the only way for rural communities to compete with cities. It will take the entire group of you with stamina to develop a plan of attack. We want to support you. Western is good as a communications catalyst to keep communications going."
Silver City Public Library Director Ken Dayer said: "We are on the front lines of providing internet. We have patrons with internet at home who come in for our speeds to do things like update their laptops. We get asked all the time who has the fastest internet speed in the area."
Christine (last name unknown), a WNMU graduate social worker with Frontier Communities, said access to broadband should be a determinant for health. She said there are a lot of disadvantaged people in New Mexico.
Jennifer (last name unknown) said she runs a community of learning network non-profit in Santa Fe. "I started it after I got involved in technology. For every economic development project, we kept seeing that access to broadband was often an obstacle. With helping communities, we are tracking broadband needs. Many of us are reaching out without knowledge of technical language. Kids know better than I. It's hard to run fiber through arroyos and canyons. We will help wherever we can."
Bart Brown, senior network administrator for WNMU, said he attended the session to listen and to learn how "we as an institution can help."
Lindstrom of the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority (PSFA)said she was glad to hear from the community. "I am an electrical engineer. I grew up in Portales, where my father taught at Eastern New Mexico University, and my mother taught at the high school. I identify with the brain drain. I went to school on a full scholarship, but after the first year, I joined the Navy and then married a sailor. I worked in San Diego, then at Los Alamos and then Denver. When I retired, I decided I wanted to return to New Mexico, and I decided on Albuquerque."
She said broadband is how the internet gets to computers. "We started with copper wire for voice to go over, then we needed to send data and faxes were developed. Then the internet came. It utilizes a bandwidth that was wider than the voice hardware, so it's called broadband. Broadband is very fast in most places. It's hardware and software that connect people. The authority I work for includes libraries in addition to public schools. Both are good for the e-rate for putting in fiber. We have two schools in New Mexico without fiber, but we are starting to get there. The network is wires and fiber optic is best. New Mexico is watching new development. We want to make sure that reliable, affordable broadband is not too expensive to upgrade. Our PSFA will connect schools and libraries. In Portales, they didn't have access to things that other areas did. A statewide education network can help, with connectivity for schools to libraries, schools to schools and students to teachers. A conceptual map law was passed by the Legislature. They told the PSFA to make it so students and teachers can connect wherever they are. The southeast corner of the state had no connectivity. There are four major connections in the state."
She showed slides on what the authority received for proposals. She described a gigapop location where ISPs (Internet service providers) will connect. Then come the nodes to the hubs, to the data centers to hotels. "Nodes are mostly located in a higher education facility. We are upgrading the UNM-Gallup node to get last mile connectivity to more people. We want to use that hub for increasing the network. We are in talks with the Navajo Nation and in Arizona."
Lindstrom said the network is in negotiation for commodity, back bone and last mile connectivity to schools. The network is bringing digital equity to schools. Funding is available, she said. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $65 billion to help cross the digital divide and ensure that everyone has access to reliable, high-speed and affordable broadband. Applications are due soon. "Equity and inclusion are a huge part of what the federal government wants. We have planning grants, and the state will be going for the greatest part of the funding. HB 21 and SB10 crated the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to put everything together in one office. They decide what a community needs. Counties will have to help in unincorporated areas. A constitutional amendment will exempt broadband from anti-donation issues. I encourage everyone to vote for the amendment. It will take handcuffs off the state. We are asking you to think about a coalition. You need a plan and an engineering plan, how much will it cost and have people to implement it to homes and senior centers. Grants are available for infrastructure. You need to know who will operate the project, the ISP, the community or a combination. Some funding could go toward salary in the planning and operations implementation steps."
Lindstrom spoke of a person who wanted to get connectivity, but because she lives in a high-crime area, techs would not come into her area, because it was too dangerous. "If we do nothing now, we take away out children's and grandchildren's futures."
She noted they had traveled to every county in the state, with this meeting in Grant County being the last. "I ask people to join the broadband coalition. This is self-determinant. We want to see diverse populations represented. We have the opportunity to made life-changing decisions for generations to come. There are a lot of ways opportunities can be tapped. You need a plan to represent a diverse community. County-by-county is a powerful way to bring tools to your community. NM DoIT (New Mexico Department of Information Technology) is hiring contractors to help with applications."