New Mexico begins five-year journey to solve broadband access problems

45,000 families qualify for federal money to pay for internet service

By: - August 31, 2021 5:30 am

One answer to providing more widespread internet access across the state is to create internet hubs that can connect communities. Here instructions for free Wi-Fi are posted on a fence outside of the To’Hajiilee Senior Citizen Center. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

The digital divide may be narrowing in New Mexico, as the state uses federal pandemic relief funds to address two of the hurdles to accessing the internet here: broadband infrastructure and the monthly cost of net access for struggling families. The demands of remote schooling and equity in public education set the stage to make it happen after years and years of attempts in New Mexico.

At the start of the pandemic, nearly one-quarter of N.M. students did not have internet access, according to education equity attorneys. Gains are being made thanks to those federal dollars. 

Ferdi Serim is the project manager with MA Strategies, a firm the state hired to help lawmakers find solutions to the state’s longstanding digital divide. “The problem has persisted for quite some time, and the fixes are not going to be instant either,” he said. “There are some things that can be done right now, but other things will require a longer period of time, and we want to plan for all of that.” 

Presenters laid out a five-year plan for lawmakers during the Aug. 16 meeting of the Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Taskforce.

Serim’s team determined which students struggle to get access to the net and mapped where the most help is needed. The state is targeting 23 school districts that encompass nearly two-thirds of the total student population in metro, rural and tribal areas. Districts are expected to report student connectivity back to the state.

In those 23 districts, 43,000 students don’t have a consistent, quality internet connection.

And even still, more than 2,700 students do not have access to any internet provider at all, according to the study. “There might be some type of internet, but it has not been adequate,” Serim said. “We heard lots of stories about this during the pandemic from teachers where they would have 23 kids in a classroom, but eight of them were not able to show up.”

The price of access

A little-known federal program designed to assist people struggling financially in the pandemic links folks to money to pay an internet provider. Under the Emergency Broadband Benefit, more than 45,000 New Mexican families qualify for up to $50 a month in federal money to cover service. People can also apply to the program for help covering the expense of a computer. 

Get help paying for internet

You qualify for the FCC’s emergency broadband benefit if you one of the following applies to you:

  • Receive SNAP, Medicaid, free and reduced-price school lunch or a Federal Pell Grant
  • Make an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines
  • Experienced a loss of income or job, or furlough, anytime after Feb. 29, 2020

New Mexicans who get food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and free and reduced school lunch are eligible for help with monthly internet costs. 

Access to the web is a requirement for New Mexico students. The state’s Public Education Department says families of nearly 70 percent of kids in public schools could be eligible for help with monthly internet bills. 

The Federal Communications Commission runs the program to offer pandemic relief as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. New Mexico’s share of the program, $25 million, is tethering people to the internet — and helping the state meet digital requirements mandated by the Yazzie-Martinez settlement, which requires all New Mexico students receive an adequate education. 

Judge Matthew Wilson from the First Judicial District Court said during a hearing in April about the education lawsuit that internet is crucial. “Children who are lacking access to internet and technology for remote learning are not getting much of an education, if at all,” he said, “let alone one that is sufficient to make them college- and career-ready.” 

The plaintiffs in the Yazzie-Martinez case showed that 23 percent of students did not have reliable internet at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. 

Laying the line

The problem isn’t only a financial one for families. The state is still hammering out its plans to build out infrastructure — like fiber optic cable and transmission hardware — so every student in our large, mostly rural state has internet access. Progress is inching forward, but it’s still a slog.

As school districts pivoted to remote learning and invested federal dollars into ramping up internet infrastructure, New Mexico leaders were confronted with the reality that the state was not set up to handle broadband development. In fact, the state didn’t have a master plan. 

Sen. George Muñoz, a Democrat from Gallup, said in April that the biggest problem is that there is not a broadband plan in the state, “which the feds require you to have before you get any federal money.”

Lawmakers created the state Office of Broadband, a centralized body that would make that plan and roll it out. The study from MA Strategies is the first step in this process to get everyone in the state connected.

A long-term network project will use school sites, businesses or a mix of the two to create internet hubs that can connect communities. 

Jonathan Chamblin is the executive director for the Public School Facilities Authority. He says they are starting to look at where those hubs might be in New Mexico, and where some of the early fiber build-out projects might be able to happen with federal funding.

“It’s based on districts that are ready with their neighbors who have already scoped projects with us the last two years,” he said.

What is the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit?

The Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit alleged that the state was in violation of its own constitution by not providing sufficient education to all students in New Mexico. The case was successful in showing that Native American students, English-language learners, children with disabilities and students from families with low incomes were not being offered adequate public education.

The ruling came down in 2018, and the state is in a long process of meeting its obligation to equitably educate all students. Internet access is always a part of the equity and education conversation, but the need to fix this decades-old problem was especially sharp as schools went remote.

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.