Network cables in a server room in New York City. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri / Getty Images)
It’s not moving at the greatest speed, but New Mexico is keeping its own pace with a five-year plan to get internet service to all parts of the state.
The state’s tech officials told lawmakers about progress on the plan during Monday’s meeting of the Transportation Infrastructure Revenue subcommittee.
Meeting attendees heard from Matt Schmit for the first time. He was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in mid-November to oversee the new Office of Broadband Access and Expansion.
He talked about the massive infrastructure package Congress passed about two weeks ago for improvements around the U.S.
“It remains to be seen how much funding will come to New Mexico out of the infrastructure bill,” Schmit said. “There’s $100 million for every state, but there’s $43 billion devoted to broadband infrastructure, and most of that is going to be formula-driven.”
While shovel-ready projects are still far off on New Mexico’s horizon, the state is following up on promises to develop the most efficient strategy. It started with creating the bureaucracy that will oversee and implement the plans, as well as finalizing a master plan to target areas in the state that need internet service.
State officials argue this foundation is required for bringing federal dollars into New Mexico.
What the state is spending
Broadband planning has a $100 million budget in state dollars appropriated last year through SB 377, which created the Connect New Mexico Fund.
Some lawmakers aren’t so sure the plans are enough. Sen. Bill Tallman argued the $100 million available through the fund is nowhere near the $1.2 billion the state estimated it would take to cover all areas that need internet.
“It was kind of confusing,” he said. “I tried to add up how much money we have in hand, as opposed to, you know, a lot of this money you have to make an application for.”
That initial state funding is supposed to last for the duration of the state’s five-year plan. Officials gave lawmakers the breakdown for how that money will be spent.
“It remains to be seen how much funding will come to New Mexico out of the infrastructure bill.”
– Mike Schmit, NM Office of Broadband Access and Expansion
Most of the funding is allotted to planning, designing, construction and purchasing of broadband infrastructure. This means that $70 million dollars will go to buying servers and cables, and coordinating research for construction plans with agencies like the Department of Transportation.
Local governments can tap into $5 million in grants from the fund to create their own plans, or to seek consultation about how to access additional funding.
The state has already received responses from 10 communities seeking technical assistance from a wide range of areas that have limited internet access. They include: Deming, Sierra County, Socorro, Ski Santa Fe, Silver City and Abiquiu. Rural areas in the eastern and southwestern part of New Mexico, as well as locations north of Taos and in the East Mountains near Albuquerque are also seeking information from the state’s technology experts.
A pilot program in the early stages in Dońa Ana County has identified 3,500 people who either have unstable internet access or who don’t have any. State officials said they will work with these communities to identify the best solution for how to proceed.
The remaining $25 million will go to public schools to equip students at home and in the classroom.
Billions could be coming
Schmit argued the state could potentially see billions in federal dollars, if it has the proper set up, like this five-year plan and 15-member administrative panel that oversees the New Mexico fund’s mission to create internet access to every corner of the state.
Federal funding already subsidized internet access for N.M. students in the meantime. According to state officials, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program has signed up more than 54,220 households with cheaper internet and rebates on devices. New Mexico has also equipped more than 106,000 students with internet devices.
Communities with shovel-ready projects and financial commitment from their states have a greater chance of being awarded federal dollars through the E-rate program.
Rand Tilton, state program manager for broadband, said $300,000 in state investment was leveraged for more than $2 million federal E-Rate grants that connect local hubs like libraries. As a result, 80% percent of New Mexico libraries are connected to fiber broadband cable now, according to the broadband office.
He also said $2.2 million in state support for broadband in the Navajo Nation is bringing in $45 million of E-Rate money to support the tribal library system. This was also boosted by the effort to reclassify chapter houses so those centers could qualify for the federal dollars.
“I think the intention here is to stand up what we consider to be a nation-leading broadband office that integrates a lot of the great work that’s taking place in New Mexico over the previous years,” Schmit told lawmakers. “Other states stand up and certainly take full advantage of the federal funding that’s coming down the pike.”
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