Santo Domingo Pueblo council member Joe Aguilar speaks about broadband at the event on Sept. 12, 2023 celebrating a new grant award. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
A recent broadband grant from the state is allowing Santo Domingo Pueblo to continue its internet expansion efforts, this time to nearby communities.
Making sure the internet is actually high-speed, both in and beyond the Pueblo, is still in the works.
New Mexico’s broadband office on Sept. 7 announced a $9.2 million grant for Santo Domingo Pueblo to connect hundreds of homes and businesses with fiber.
$66.8 million grants total
The money is coming from the Connect New Mexico Pilot Program that gave Pueblos nearly $35 million. Internet and phone companies received $32 million.
This allows people who never had connectivity before to get set up with internet.
The award is supplementing a $12.7 million federal grant the Santo Domingo Pueblo got in 2022 that allowed officials to start work to hook up hundreds of homes to fiber-optic internet.
Using the total $21.9 million in state and federal funds, Santo Domingo Pueblo anticipates it’ll be able to connect 870 buildings total with 50 miles of fiber laid down.
Tribal leaders and members, joined by a couple state officials, celebrated the funding at an event on Tuesday at the Santo Domingo Trading Post, where the Pueblo’s technology department has set up.
Frank White, information technology director for Santo Domingo Pueblo, said Santo Domingo is the only Pueblo that’s gotten both of these state and federal broadband funds.
White (Zuni) said the newer internet expansion efforts will go beyond Santo Domingo Pueblo to the small non-tribal neighboring communities of Sile and Peña Blanca, an expansion officials have previously expressed interest in.
White said nearly no homes in Sile and Peña Blanca have internet. Local residents and businesses wrote letters of support for Santo Domingo Pueblo’s plans in their areas.
“A lot of the time for a small community like this, it’s just too expensive,” White said. “That’s why we’re trying to expand the area. We’re going to offer affordable internet.”
The Pueblo plans to connect 529 homes within its own borders, 277 homes in Peña Blanca and 64 homes in Sile, according to maps at the event.
The project is still in the planning stages. White said work to get permits and map routes are done.
Santo Domingo Pueblo is using 3D printers to make materials for other infrastructure projects that could come in handy for this work, too. White said officials could use 3D-printed parts to replace those that break.
“When we get farther into the project, we will probably figure out what we need,” he said.
Something that still remains an issue is internet speed.
Tribal member Florence Calabaza got internet about a year or two ago, after the height of the pandemic. Calabaza (Kewa) said the technology has really helped her life, but the speeds are still really slow.
Similarly, when Doris Mina’s two daughters try to do their online schoolwork, they sometimes struggle with how much the internet at home lags.
Mina (Santo Domingo) said she hopes increased speeds will come in the future and benefit students.
That’s something the Pueblo is working on. White said there will be more emphasis on faster speeds once fiber is laid down everywhere.
“We’ll start increasing the speeds to something competitive with major areas like Albuquerque,” he said.
Looking back. Looking forward.
Multiple tribal officials commented on how the pandemic accelerated the Pueblo’s broadband initiative.
Herman Sanchez is the tribal administrator. He said internet access can be life-changing, recalling roadblocks students and parents in Santo Domingo Pueblo faced during the first few months of the pandemic as classes went online but people didn’t have internet access.
“The pandemic was devastating,” he said. “But we wanted to turn something bad into something good.”
COVID-19 is still around. However, Santo Domingo’s precautions to limit non-tribal members from entering the Pueblo, mask mandates and other efforts have stopped. So have some of the issues with internet connectivity.
By August 2020, five months into the pandemic and when school was starting up again, Santo Domingo Pueblo connected over 700 homes to the internet, according to data from the Pueblo.
Now, over three years later, tribal members can connect to the Pueblo’s own internet service subscription with different plans that offer varying speeds.
Santo Domingo council member Joe Aguilar said all of this broadband work never would’ve happened without the pandemic.
“The future is right here in fiber optics, in broadband,” he said.
White said officials plan to keep pursuing state or federal funding to keep the broadband expansion going.
“Once we hook these up, we’re actually thinking about expanding to some of the other smaller communities around here that are underserved,” he said.
He said the Pueblo wants to eventually build an IT center and a training center so Santo Domingo Pueblo could teach other tribes about this kind of broadband work.
Staff from Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández’s offices attended the event to congratulate the Pueblo and commit to continuing work to ensure that people get connected to high-speed internet in New Mexico.
“This must continue to be our national priority, and we’re not going to stop until we get there together,” Luján’s representative said, reading the senator’s remarks.
New Mexico Broadband Office Operations Manager Drew Lovelace announced at the event on Tuesday that he’d be stepping in as interim director as current director Kelly Schlegel retires.
He said he wants to ensure that the broadband office is serving all parts of New Mexico, including Santo Domingo Pueblo and other tribes across the state.
“We are here to continue to work,” he said.
Sanchez hopes revenue generated by Santo Domingo Pueblo’s broadband efforts will go to other industries, like education and health care. He said this could be an economic driver that will allow the Pueblo to reinvest money into itself.
“The money’s going to stay here in New Mexico. It’s going to stay here in Santo Domingo,” he said. “And that’s what’s exciting.”
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