A decades-long national effort was launched to bring telephone service to the most rural parts of the country. A Universal Services Fund was created, adding a new fee to our monthly bills to finance projects that wouldn’t otherwise have enough customers to be profitable.
New government boards, like New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission, were created to regulate telephone services as a public utility.
All of those efforts paid off, just in time for landline telephones to become obsolete.
Today’s communications require high-speed broadband Internet services, which are not treated as a public utility in the same way that telephone services are. And, just like in the early days of telephone services, those living in rural and poorer areas of the country are being left out.
To address the problem, Congress included $45 billion to increase access to broadband service in the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. New Mexico received $675 million this summer.
But there’s not the same kind of coordination and regulation for broadband as there was for telephones. It will be up to the states to ensure that the funding goes to where it is needed most.
In 2021, the New Mexico Legislature passed two bills to fund and coordinate broadband expansion. One created the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion. The other created the Connect New Mexico Fund, along with a $100 million appropriation to get it started.
But ultimately, it will be the responsibility of each city, county, town, village and colonia to develop their own plans and submit their own proposals.
Officials with the new broadband department have been traveling throughout the state, including earlier this summer in Anthony, to help walk community leaders through the process.
Kelly Schlegel, director of the new broadband office, told KRWG that they will help community leaders develop a plan, design their network, apply for funding and form partnerships.
The obvious concern is that communities with the greatest needs often lack the resources to apply for funding in what will be a competitive process. It will be critical that the broadband office gives these communities the support they will need.
According to the group Broadband Now, New Mexico is one the least connected states in the nation. It’s estimated that nearly 20 percent of households in the state lack access to broadband services.
Not surprisingly, Los Alamos is the most connected town in the state, with nearly 100 percent access. But those living in Brimhall, Cochiti Pueblo, Mexican Springs, Shiprock and Vanderwagen have no access at all. In Dona Ana County, only 68 percent of residents in Chaparral have access and 78 percent in Hatch. Colonias were not included in the report.
This is a huge problem, and we’re throwing a lot of money at it. That’s justified. Communities that lack broadband access will get left behind in a new economy that relies on Internet connections.
Schlegel and her office have a huge responsibility to ensure the flood of new money is used wisely and that New Mexico joins the rest of the connected nation.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com.
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