State officials scramble to meet a federal target date to map gaps in internet access

NM broadband director says hundreds of millions in federal funding could be on the line

By: - November 21, 2022 5:00 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)

Data mistakes and an inability to keep up with a federal program’s demands could cause the state to miss out on several hundred million dollars that would extend broadband to underserved areas in New Mexico.

Kelly Schlegel is the state’s broadband director. She talked to the legislative Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee on Thursday about staffing problems that could prevent a full internet expansion.

New Mexico is taking part in a national high-speed internet effort to get broadband to areas that don’t have it or that lack fast, reliable internet altogether. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is distributing the funding so states can set up or expand broadband access in those underserved or unserved locations.

Many of the regions in New Mexico that are most in need are rural communities, and some say they’ve been ignored for a long time.

But the state is struggling to keep up with the program’s suggested timelines. Schlegel said the broadband division needs more staff to sort out issues to ensure that the state receives the money it needs for a full internet expansion.

Officials need to figure out internet access in the state

N.M. broadband officials need to submit information about what areas in New Mexico have internet access to the Federal Communications Commission by Jan. 13 for the best funding consideration. This will update a national draft map the FCC released on Friday, Nov. 18 and will determine how much money New Mexico gets.

But Schlegel said the broadband division has found a number of errors in the FCC map of New Mexico detailing broadband access. She said the division, right now, probably doesn’t have enough staff to fix it by the program’s mid-January target date.

“It’s so important to get the maps right, and our maps are not really there yet,” she said.

Administration spokesperson Charlie Meisch Jr. acknowledged that the office and Schlegel as director are fairly new and said the agency is still trying to support them. “We’re there to try to address these issues and make sure they have the information and resources that they need,” he said.

But Schlegel said the federal agency announced the January date suddenly, only telling New Mexico about it with two months to turn the information around — despite the state asking previously about when the FCC needed the mapping info — sending the team scrambling to get their data together.

Meisch said the January date isn’t actually a hard deadline and is rather just the best time for states to submit internet information. The agency wants to get the program moving quickly, though, he said. “Any day that goes by where someone doesn’t have access, there is a cost with it,” he said.

Schlegel said she thinks the mapping issues of the state could cause New Mexico to miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars. That could potentially leave thousands of people in the dark without internet access.

Meisch declined to comment on whether a submission after the January date could cause New Mexico to miss out on money.

How much money is available?

The Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program will provide $42.5 billion for internet access across the U.S., Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

In total, Schlegel said New Mexico is hoping for at least $700 million. The minimum states can get is $100 million. With that money, New Mexico can allocate grants to communications companies for the broadband setup and expansion.

But she said, “right now, I am worried that we’re a few hundred million dollars short.”

She said the broadband division was essentially waving a red flag to the legislators on Thursday.

“We don’t want New Mexico to lose a dollar,” she said.

And the lawmakers were receptive to the news. Many voiced concern and potential solutions, like who could help solve the map issues. Sen. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque), chair of the committee, said this vital data cannot be incorrect, leading the state to lose out on that much funding.

“This is a big deal,” Padilla said. “We cannot let this happen.”

Other federal funding

The state’s broadband division finished submitting several other applications for federal funding projects that are being processed, Schlegel said. She said the state hasn’t received any money yet, but she’s been assured it’s coming.

Since September, the division has awarded millions of dollars in grants to local electric companies to get homes connected to the internet, many of which are located in rural areas of the state.

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.