Feds announce $40 million more to help rural communities connect to high speed internet

Ag Secretary joins NM federal delegation to make announcement on Monday in Albuquerque; Grant recipient raises concerns about affordability

By: - April 4, 2023 5:00 am
USDA Secretary Vilsack speaks into a microphone with flags standing behind him.

Secretary Vilsack commended the persistence of New Mexico’s Congressional Delegation when it came to securing the funding for broadband expansion. Pictured on April 3, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

From keeping a chile farm up and running to making sure kids can learn virtually, New Mexicans living in rural areas say they need good internet to do it.

On Monday, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Albuquerque to announce $40 million the federal agency is sending to rural New Mexico communities to expand broadband access.

The awardees

Three companies will get $40 million in grants altogether through USDA’s ReConnect Program:

  • The Western New Mexico Telephone Company Inc. will get $23.8 million for work in Catron County affecting 206 people, five businesses and five farms;
  • The Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative Inc. will get $13.9 million for work in Chaves, Eddy, Otero and Lincoln Counties affecting 550 people, 11 businesses and 48 farms;
  • The E.N.M.R. Telephone Cooperative will get $2.6 million for work in De Baca, Guadalupe, Harding, Quay, San Miguel, Socorro and Union Counties affecting 27 people and one farm.

This money is part of subsidies from the federal government to roll out funding to rural communities that have long lacked reliable internet access.

Vilsack said this brings the number of these USDA broadband expansion measures in New Mexico to 18 projects totaling over $200 million.

Funding comes from the national Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which set aside $65 billion for internet expansion across the U.S. — the largest investment ever in broadband and connectivity.

The $40 million for New Mexico will reach hundreds of people in rural areas. The timeline for how quickly communities will reap the benefits of these grants is unclear. Vilsack said it’ll vary, depending on the contractors’ timeline and the complexity of the projects.

“But as soon as they’re ready, we’ll be ready,” he said. “In other words, the resources will be available as soon as they need the resources.”

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, there with the rest of the state’s Congressional Delegation, said it’s not a cheap project, but every person no matter where they live deserves reliable internet. 

Teresa Leger Fernandez speaks in front of a lectern.
Teresa Leger Fernandez, who represents New Mexico’s third Congressional District, speaks on broadband expansion on April 3, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

Vilsack reiterated the same sentiment.

“This is not a situation where your zip code should determine whether you have access to this incredibly important connecting opportunity,” Vilsack said.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said a lot of New Mexicans historically haven’t had equal opportunities in many areas, including internet access. These investments can help solve those gaps, he said.

Vilsack said two plans can help low-income New Mexicans in rural areas afford reliable internet and phone plans — the Affordable Connectivity Program, which discounts internet and broadband services, and the Lifeline Program, which discounts phone services.

There are still other affordability issues.

Mitch Hibbard works at the Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative, one of the recent grant recipients that has also gotten dollars in the past. He stood up during public comment and brought up concerns that rural co-ops have to pull dollars out of their own pockets because the grant doesn’t actually cover everything that’s needed.

He said one of the fastest ways to deploy fiber broadband is to put it on existing power poles, but some of those poles in rural areas are nearly 100 years old and need to be replaced. The grant doesn’t budget for that, Hibbard said, and it’s hard for these smaller businesses to afford that.

“It’s gonna make it a challenge to get these things down in rural type areas,” he said.

Helping out agriculturalists 

Vilsack said farmers and ranchers could benefit from better internet. He said things like marketing and exports in those industries depend on good broadband.

Mary Alice Garay, an agriculturalist who spoke at the event, agreed. She owns a chile farming business with her family and said the help is much-needed, especially for the farmers who don’t have technical expertise on broadband.

A woman speaks into a microphone with the American flag behind her.
Mary Alice Garay spoke during a panel portion of a broadband event on April 3, 2023. She represented the Ben Archer Health Center and her family’s farming business. She spoke about the different of broadband expansion will make to rural New Mexican’s health care and her family’s business. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

“There is a lot of funding coming down,” she said. “We need to find ways to get that down to the farmers.”

John Diamond, a rancher in southern New Mexico, said he grew up without electricity and phone connections in southern New Mexico. Even recently, he said, he had to relocate his ranch closer to a city just to be able to operate.

He added that his kids had to do remote learning during the pandemic and, even then, they didn’t have high speed internet but had to figure out how to make it work.

“No zip code should determine your lifestyle,” Diamond said.

USDA awarded Sacred Wind Communications Telesolutions Inc. a $6.1 million grant in 2020, that would offer better internet service to places like Diamond’s southern New Mexico community. He said those lines at his house still haven’t been hooked up yet.

Vilsack also hopes the broadband aid for farming communities could encourage people to stay in the state or, even bring back anyone who left. He argued that by connecting small- and mid-sized farms to good broadband, workers will make more money and be able to afford to stay in New Mexico.

“You have the opportunity to invite your young folks who’ve left to come back to those small communities because they’d rather actually raise their families there,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez said internet access is also necessary for things like education, health care and economic opportunities.

“Our rural communities are vital to our state and to this country, but too often they’re left behind in federal investments in comparison to large urban cities,” Vasquez said.

Vilsack said many people in the larger cities rely on smaller communities, too.

“At the end of the day, we all benefit from what happens in rural places,” he said. “Almost all the food that we eat comes from rural places. Almost all the energy that we consume is generated in rural places.”

Vilsack said the second phase of internet expansion now is mapping the country to figure out which areas lack good internet. The state has struggled to meet deadlines for this in the past.

A sign that reads "Investing in America" with "Albuquerque, New Mexico" under that, signed by the N.M. Congressional Delegation and USDA Secretary.
A sign that was autographed by all the members of NM’s Congressional Delegation and Secretary Vilsack on April 3, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently 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.