Rural NM lawmakers weigh calling on the US military to help build out broadband

State’s anti-donation laws could hinder infrastructure development, according to legislators

By: - October 5, 2021 6:43 am

A worker lays tubing used for running fiber-optic cable underground during the installation of broadband infrastructure in rural Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Access to fast, reliable internet has long been a problem for rural parts of New Mexico but became an especially dire equity issue when the pandemic forced many students and workers to stay home and communicate online.

As many as 20% of homes in the state do not have access to broadband internet, according to the Department of Information Technology. And New Mexico is looking at a five-year timeline for rolling out connectivity.

Some state lawmakers want action sooner rather than later, and are even considering calling on the U.S. military to install broadband internet infrastructure.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup and member of the Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee, said during an Oct. 4 hearing she thinks it would be a good idea to treat broadband installation “as though it is a military deployment.”

Lundstrom, who also sits on the Finance Committee, said lawmakers will draft a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders to ask for military assistance.

Lundstrom said it’s time to think outside the box and talk with the military about this construction. “I know that when the military strategizes, they know how to get something done pretty darn quick.”

Democratic Rep. Joy Garratt from Albuquerque supported the idea of the military pitching in. “We’ve seen the National Guard totally help us throughout the state with COVID,” she said. “So now that COVID is hopefully totally declining, we can change them to broadband. That’s a fabulous idea.”

As of press time, Lundstrom had not responded to a request for comment about when she might send the letter to the Governor’s Office.

No Czar

The state does not have a master plan for building out broadband infrastructure, though it’s in the early stages of developing one. Sen. George Muñoz, a Democrat from Gallup, said in April the state needs that kind of plan in order to receive federal funding.

Lawmakers created the state Office of Broadband, which is supposed to write New Mexico’s plan.

According to the Office of Broadband website, it still does not have a director. Lawmakers confirmed this during the meeting, addressing the lack of a point-person for this kind of massive, statewide undertaking. Lundstrom said not having leadership in place is delaying the process. “We’ve fallen way behind here,” she said. “We still don’t have anybody in charge.”

The bipartisan infrastructure bill making its way through Congress includes billions for broadband infrastructure, requires companies that use federal dollars to offer a cheap broadband service option to families and creates a permanent federal program so households with low incomes can access net. 

Rights of way

In June, a federal judge ordered the state Department of Transportation to allow a Santa Fe internet company to use the department’s rights of way to install broadband equipment between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The department had argued that since the company was not public, it did not have a right to those permissions for free.

Last August, the federal Highway Administration proposed a rule meant to make it easier for broadband equipment to be installed in highway rights of way throughout the country.

Sen. Pat Woods, a Republican from rural Broadview in eastern N.M., said state DOT officials decided that they will no longer allow broadband infrastructure — like laying fiber-optic cable — in their rights of way unless the state receives annual compensation as part of their installation.

RELATED: NM road repairs coming, but more funding needed (Aug. 31, 2021)

State DOT officials testified before lawmakers in late August that the department needs more money to properly maintain the state’s highways.

Making matters more complicated for DOT, federal highway and transit funding is up in the air as Congress struggles to find agreement on infrastructure bills.

RELATED: Why there’s such an impasse in Congress: Some questions and answers (Oct. 5, 2021)

Woods expressed concerns about the DOT’s plan. “To put an extra cost on the fiber and the right of way essentially stops broadband in its tracks,” Woods said.

DOT officials said the move to charge for rights of way was about obeying the anti-donation clause in the N.M. Constitution. As it stands, the clause prohibits the state and local governments from lending or pledging money to any public or private organizations except under certain circumstances. “We really need to look at how we define rural broadband,” Woods said, “so we can get around that anti-donation clause in the state constitution.”

Many paths, same goal

Earlier this year, Democratic Reps. Anthony Allison and Christine Chandler co-sponsored House Joint Resolution 9, which would have asked voters to consider amending that same anti-donation clause of the New Mexico Constitution to allow for NM funds to pay for infrastructure that allows “essential household services” to be connected to homes in the state. 

The resolution was approved by the House but never received a vote in the Senate.

Rep. Randal Crowder, a Republican from Clovis, said at the legislative hearing Monday that California spent $3.2 billion to have their state highway department install fiber-optic cable beneath their roads. He suggested that New Mexico may need to use federal broadband money to install fiber-optic cable over long distances, which internet service providers would then hook into and connect to customers.

Rep. Angelica Rubio, a Democrat from Las Cruces who chairs the committee, said there is a “growing coalition” of House lawmakers raising the issue of broadband infrastructure.

Democratic Sen. Roberto Gonzales from Ranchos de Taos up north said there needs to be some kind of legislation that “works with us, not against us, where the Department of Transportation is not tied up by attorneys.”

“We need to look at where we are,” Gonzales said, “especially since right now, we’re probably going to have the most funding ever available in broadband, and we need to take advantage of that.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.