Briefs

Millions for internet infrastructure awarded to tribal communities in N.M.

By: - August 12, 2022 4:30 am

Five tribal communities were awarded a total of $146 million for broadband projects on Aug. 11, 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

If it wasn’t obvious by the packed conference room at Isleta Casino Thursday morning, the excitement became clear in the loud applause after each of five tribal communities in New Mexico were awarded millions for broadband projects.

Jicarilla Apache Tribe. Mescalero Apache. Isleta Pueblo. Santo Domingo Pueblo. All had sections of community leaders in the crowd celebrating the grants totaling nearly $147 million from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The five tribal entities that received broadband grant awards from NTIA

  • Isleta Pueblo $26,033,972
  • Santa Fe Indian School $57,298,683
  • Jicarilla Apache Nation Power Authority $6,935,801
  • Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) $12,775,576
  • Mescalero Apache Telecom, Inc. $43,943,116

The entire room was clapping by the time the finale grantee was awarded: the Santa Fe Indian School. 

Everyone in attendance — from tribal, state and federal leadership to members of the telecom industry — was relieved to see more than a year of work culminate in a funding source to help alleviate internet connection issues in these regions. 

Internet access was a rare commodity in rural New Mexico, and the gap became even more urgent when COVID-19 shut down schools and offices. Early pandemic reports showed that more than one-quarter of New Mexico public school students did not have reliable internet. Students in tribal schools climbed mountains or parked outside libraries just to get a link to homework assignments.

Now all of that could change.

Fiber optic cable projects will be the priority. Communities can work to build out their own internet service through a tribal telecommunications agency or work in collaboration with an established ISP like CenturyLink or Comcast. 

This week, the Interior Department announced a plan to “streamline” broadband construction projects in tribal lands through partnership between the telecom and info administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that will lift certain land access restrictions to get shovels in the ground quickly.

Shortly after the event, a pilot program directed by the state was also announced that will offer grants that can potentially “cover up to 75% of total project costs for network expansion in unserved and underserved areas of the state.”

All of this indicates telecom projects will be booming in New Mexico, aided by federal dollars.

A group of tribal, federal and state leaders arrived at Isleta Casino to hear about broadband grants awarded to New Mexico communities on Aug. 11, 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Isleta Pueblo Gov. Vernon Abeita took a moment to recognize everyone involved — from his entire cabinet, to the tribal council and the group of consultants authorized to help — then encouraged anyone hesitant to apply for these types of services to work past that feeling and try to pull down money for their communities.

“I want to thank all the tribal leaders here today that received the grants. Congratulations to all of you, because it’s putting that foot forward and moving our communities forward,” Abeita said, “moving our Pueblos and our tribal nations. So we can go ahead and continue on, and be connected to the world.”

The need to address internet connectivity issues was sharpened during COVID. Abeita said when kids were sent home from school and into online classrooms, he personally faced issues with the digital divide. 

“Then all of a sudden, I myself fell into this problem where we didn’t have an internet connection in our house,” he said. “And we only live within two miles away from Albuquerque.”

The immediate option for many in tribal communities was to get internet through hot spots via cellular service providers. Issues there were pricing, low speeds and erratic connection. Internet service providers who could link up a home also offered low speeds that struggled to maintain a quality connection for households suddenly in need of having multiple devices online at once.

Andy Berke announced the awards on behalf of the telecom and info administration. He said there are applications pending, more open grant programs available and billions more that could head this way to possibly complete the Biden administration’s mission to link up every home in a tribal community.

He called this a “transformative moment” and spoke to the idea that the internet should be treated as a public utility. “Today we are changing. Thanks to leaders like you see here, internet is going to be thought of much more as an essential, like water, or electricity, or roads.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, an instrumental voice in the Senate to get rural broadband funding, told others in attendance that this was just the first round of money awarded and that more could be coming soon. He did not specify how many other applications are pending for tribes in New Mexico.

“To all of you that have applied but are not part of this award ceremony, we’ll get back to you when those announcements are made,” Luján said. 

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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