Democratic U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez met with local and state officials Tuesday to discuss a grant she secured for a new high-speed wireless internet network. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
ESPAÑOLA— When COVID-19 hit the world in March 2020, many people living in Santa Clara Pueblo were forced to work from home to avoid catching coronavirus or, if they did not have good connections to the internet, take leaves of absence from work.
Geremy Yepa said these circumstances affected everyone’s income and student’s access to schooling.
Yepa (Santa Clara) said there are grandparents throughout the area who are raising grandchildren in school and cannot afford internet service in the first place.
What’s more, Yepa said many of those grandparents do not have any experience using computers, making it difficult for them to resolve errors or connection issues for their children.
Those problems of troubleshooting technical issues at home would be prevented with better wireless internet infrastructure, Yepa said. He is the chair of the REDINet Board of Directors and represents the Tesuque Pueblo government on the board.
REDINet is a federally funded public regional broadband network formed in 2010 by eight governments in northern New Mexico: the city of Española, Rio Arriba County, Los Alamos County, Santa Fe County, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo and Tesuque Pueblo.
The network offers high-speed internet to public buildings and local internet service providers at or below market rates.
Meeting community needs often requires looking past jurisdictional barriers between local and tribal governments, Yepa said in an interview on Tuesday after meeting in-person with Democratic U.S. Rep. TeresaLeger Fernández, local and state leaders and other REDINet officials inside the Española City Council chambers.
“I’m really excited to see that different entities — counties, municipalities, Pueblos — all joining together to better the area, whether it be broadband, water infrastructure, wastewater,” Yepa said. “This is a model we can move forward from, in our other projects, to better northern, rural New Mexico.”
Leger Fernández helped secure $879,506 in grant funding for the city government from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The city is proposing to use that money to install 30 high-speed internet antennas at nine different locations in what is now called Española Valley, which encompasses the city, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara Puebloand unincorporated areas of Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties.
“I think we’re going to solve the broadband problem,” Leger Fernández said. “Everything is aligned right now.”
There are 5,000 households that will be inside the wireless network once it’s up and running, according to a project proposal commissioned by the city government.
REDINet General Manager Jerrold Baca said the project will provide wireless internet access to the area by installing new equipment on existing towers and buildings, including the city’s 911 dispatch center and the tallest building in the valley, the Santa Claran Hotel Casino.
“That’s how we’re able to bring this to market quickly,” Baca said. The plan is to work with wireless internet providers in the area to get the service into peoples’ homes.
Internet customers will have download speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, though there will be cheaper options for 25 or 50 megabits, the proposal states. The $2.1 million project is expected to take nine months to complete.
According to Leger Fernández’s office, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden in November includes $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across New Mexico.
Leger Fernandez said it is not enough to just make the internet service available, it must also be accessible.
The infrastructure bill provides money for the Federal Communications Commission to offer a $30 discount per month called an Emergency Broadband Benefit to people who can’t afford the cost of internet service, Leger Fernández said. The legislation requires the internet service to be affordable, she said.
Baca said internet users will need to ask their internet providers for the benefit.
38% of New Mexicans will be eligible for the benefit, Leger Fernandez said, totaling 785,000 people.
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