NM broadband officials figure out how to use $675M for broadband expansion, despite federal errors
Some households will miss out on these federally funded internet connections because the national broadband map left out locations
U.S. Rep Teresa Leger Fernández speaks about broadband at an event in Santa Fe on July 6, 2023. Sitting down and listening, from left to right, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, U.S. Presidential Advisor Mitch Landrieu, N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and N.M. Broadband Director Kelly Schlegel. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
With a $675 million federal grant secured for broadband expansion in New Mexico, state officials now have to figure out a plan to distribute that money.
It’ll be months before anyone can access the grant money that the federal government announced in June.
The goal is to set up reliable, high-speed internet around the state, especially in areas that have historically lacked broadband or any internet services at all.
Local, tribal, state and federal leaders gathered at the Santa Fe Indian School on Thursday to celebrate the federal funding award and lay out the next steps.
Before any on-the-ground work can get started, New Mexico broadband officials have to report to federal communications agencies about what they plan to do with the $675 million.
April McClain-Delaney is the deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a branch of the Department of Commerce. She said states have about six months to submit plans to the federal government on how they intend to use the broadband funding.
Federal promise to get service to everyone
McClain-Delaney said these funds are just a small part of the varied resources the Biden-Harris administration plans to roll out for broadband. President Joe Biden has a goal to connect everyone in the U.S. to reliable, high-speed internet by 2030.
Nearly one-quarter of New Mexican households don’t have reliable internet access, according to the governor’s office.
No one can access the federal dollars until the plans are approved, she said.
Kelly Schlegel is New Mexico’s broadband director. She said the first plan her office needs to submit has to be data driven, prioritizing unserved and underserved communities, low-income households, and community institutions like schools or libraries.
She said the state’s broadband officials will have to submit additional plans later on.
“Now we have to roll up our sleeves and get the work done,” Schlegel said.
New Mexico has to submit the initial plan before 2024. Schlegel said the broadband office started working on it before the feds announced the funding awards last month.
Once the plan is approved, McClain-Delaney said the state can get the first 20% of its funding. That would be $135 million for New Mexico.
Schlegel said more funding will come later as other plans are approved.
She said local and tribal governments could be part of the broadband grantmaking process as soon as spring next year, though she said that timeline can vary depending on federal approval.
It could take years for local, tribal and state officials to actually get the broadband set up.
New Mexico has gotten nearly $1.4 billion in broadband funds from different federal agencies, according to NTIA. That includes dollars to help connect rural areas, tribal nations and minority institutions to good internet.
Including tribal communities
To get to this point, Schlegel said it took months of work to determine what areas in New Mexico do or don’t have high-speed, reliable internet.
And then, she said, it took enormous local, state and federal efforts to accurately map those service locations. The Federal Communications Commission had many errors in past broadband maps that Schlegel and her team have worked to fix.
Over 20,000 locations were missing from previous versions of the map. About 65% of those missing areas were tribal lands.
This time around, the feds still didn’t get everything right. Schlegel said the map continues to have missing locations.
“We got a lot done,” she said. “There’s more way to go.”
Schlegel told Source NM the state isn’t allowed to add locations, so officials can’t deliver any of the $675 million to households in areas that aren’t on this version of the map.
But, she said, the state can at least update service availability, so if an area is incorrectly listed as having reliable internet and it doesn’t, officials can fix that.
Schlegel said she thinks all the tribal nations in New Mexico will be looped into this broadband expansion effort.
“Is it going to be perfect? Because I know we have missing locations,” she said. “It’s not going to be.”
She said she’s trying to cover gaps left by the still-inaccurate map by asking legislators to provide more funds as state broadband grants.
‘Find the money to connect New Mexico’
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján attended the event too. He said New Mexico is a difficult state to connect because of its landscape, like the mountainous terrain, as well as the different tribal, state and federal land jurisdictions.
He serves as chair of the U.S. Senate subcommittee of Communications, Media and Broadband. Luján said as long as he’s on that committee, New Mexico will be connected.
“As I shared with the Secretary of Commerce, if there’s not enough money in this, in order to earn my vote to support it, you’ll have to find the money to connect New Mexico,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández is a co-chair of the federal Congressional Rural Broadband Caucus. She said at the event that she’ll work along with Luján to ensure that money continues to flow for broadband in the state.
“When we see that there isn’t enough, we are going to work to find where it can come from,” she said.
Luján said it’s important for New Mexicans to have not just access to internet but also to be able to afford it.
He spoke about the Affordable Connectivity Program, something that people with low incomes or enrolled in government support programs like SNAP or Medicaid qualify for. They can save up to $30 on their monthly internet service bills, and those living on certain tribal lands can save up to $75.
McClain-Delaney said more than 167,000 households in New Mexico are saving money on internet services through the federal Affordable Connectivity Program.
“It’s really about equalizing opportunity for every American, no matter what ZIP code you live in,” she said.
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