U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández listen with others to broadband consultant Bryan Schalipp explain fiber wiring on Thursday, July 6, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
SANTO DOMINGO PUEBLO — From having very little internet access at all to setting up a Pueblo-wide service network over the past few years, Santo Domingo leaders are working to expand broadband services in a self-sufficient way.
They’re now in the process of creating the Pueblo’s first large-scale solar farm, a project that’ll help get energy to internet towers to boost broadband services.
A $12.7 million federal grant awarded to Santo Domingo Pueblo in 2022 is helping fund this project, along with other private grant dollars.
Other tribal nations that also recently received federal broadband funding are struggling with supply chain issues in their internet expansion.
Santo Domingo Pueblo developed a workaround.
The Pueblo is using 3D printers to create the parts needed to build energy and internet infrastructure.
“We can’t find what we need so we created our own,” tribal administrator Herman Sanchez said.
Tribal leaders showed state and federal officials the 3D printing process in-person on Thursday at a site where contractors are laying down fiber underground.
Frank White is the Santo Domingo Pueblo information technology director. He said 3D printing allows the Pueblo to obtain certain types of hardware that are difficult to get right now because of supply chain issues, something that the pandemic intensified. He said the Pueblo is also in touch with specific vendors that can access hard-to-find equipment.
“We’re trying to get creative,” he said.
White said a lot of work has already gotten done on the solar project, and expects it to be completed in another couple of years.
Lindsey Abeita (Kewa) is a digital content producer for the Pueblo. She said the 3D printing methodology allows the Pueblo to expand its internet presence independently.
“So we can be a self-sustaining Pueblo,” she said.
Sanchez said federal funding makes all this work possible. He said the Pueblo has the capacity to get it done but needs a little help to make it to that point.
Federal delegation members listened to Sanchez and White explain the 3D printing process and what the tribal leaders are doing with the funds that the federal government gave them last year.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández told Source NM it’s exciting how the Pueblo is getting all of this work done this way.
She said other tribal nations could emulate what Santo Domingo is doing, a Pueblo that she said has “taken the lead in terms of looking at how to create the internet.”
She said she thinks it’s great that these broadband services are creating careers for tribal members. “We are here to celebrate that,” she said.
Leger Fernández said internet can also help with language preservation.
Abetia said there needs to be a concentrated effort to make sure that actually happens.
She said there could be a “conflict with language and culture” as more and more households are connected to internet. Particularly with younger kids, she said, they could get distracted online instead of learning about their culture.
“I feel like we have a balance,” she said. “I know it just comes within the household.”
Federal funds may not be enough for other projects
The $12.7 million is also funding other projects.
White said it will allow the Pueblo to hook up over 300 households to fiber internet, set up a new IT building and create more internet towers.
But tribal leaders are encountering challenges with inflation, White said. He said it’s causing issues with how far officials can go with this federal broadband grant.
That’s something other tribal communities also awarded federal funds last year are struggling with, too.
“We don’t know whether the funding will actually complete all the projects that we had planned,” White said.
He said the Pueblo has already had to cut down on how many households officials can connect to broadband.
White pointed in the distance toward a cluster of homes. For example, he said, officials initially planned to connect around 70 of those homes to better internet services but had to cut that down by about 30 households.
Expanding beyond the Pueblo
Before 2015, Santo Domingo had little to no internet.
The Pueblo joined the Middle Rio Grande Tribal Consortium in 2015, laying down fiber between the Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, San Felipe and Cochiti Pueblos, according to a presentation from White and Sanchez.
That infrastructure allowed tribal officials to set up a free Pueblo-wide wireless internet system in 2020, connecting over 700 homes by the end of the year, according to the presentation slides. In 2021, the officials added faster speeds that people can pay more for.
Sanchez said they now want to expand their internet services beyond the Pueblo borders, getting access to the Peña Blanca community and the city of Sile, areas underserved by major broadband providers.
Santo Domingo recently applied for a state broadband grant and plans to connect almost 1,200 homes to fiber internet if the tribal community gets the money and the Pueblo council approves, according to the presentation.
U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján said they applaud Santo Domingo for setting up these internet services.
Heinrich said he remembers visiting Santo Domingo at the beginning of the pandemic when there was very little fiber installed. He said the Pueblo has come a long way in three years.
“Just to recognize what you’ve accomplished here — I think it’s brilliant,” Heinrich said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said at a broadband conference later on Thursday in Santa Fe that tribal nations are leading the way for broadband expansion efforts.
“We’re going to be the first state with sovereign nations fully connected in the country,” she said. “It is powerful.”
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