USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack announces New Mexico broadband awards at an event in Albuquerque in April 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)
A telephone company that normally serves Oklahomans and Texans will be reaching beyond its boundaries to set up high-speed internet for New Mexicans in the most northeastern part of the state using federal dollars announced on Monday.
The United States Department of Agriculture awarded $714 million in grants and loans aimed to connect rural areas to affordable high-speed internet. One of 33 chosen broadband projects should get better service to residents in Union County.
Panhandle Telephone Cooperative Inc. got $43.3 million to set up fiber optic in New Mexico and Oklahoma. At this time, the company doesn’t offer service in the state.
Most of the co-op’s project is planned for Oklahoma, but it also affects a small area in Union County.
This award is part of the USDA ReConnect Program, which focuses on setting up good service in rural areas. In April, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came to New Mexico to announce $40 million in ReConnect funding with projects scattered across the state.
Out of the $43 million announced for Panhandle Telephone Cooperative on Monday, half is a grant and the rest is a loan to the company.
It’s unclear what the timeline the internet provider is under to set up its services in Union County. A USDA spokesperson couldn’t speak on the matter, and the Panhandle Telephone Cooperative wouldn’t speak to any details on the project.
Vilsack said in April timelines for other similar grants are unclear and can vary depending on contractors and the complexity of the projects.
The broadband-to-come is meant to be affordable. Panhandle Telephone Co-op participates in federal programs that give low-income communities internet service discounts. People using Medicaid, SNAP or tribal assistance programs can qualify for $30 to $75 discounts per month on their bills.
The internet will go to people, farms, educational facilities and businesses, according to the USDA.
“High-speed internet is a key to prosperity for people who live and work in rural communities,” Vilsack said in a news release.
New Mexico and tribal nations expect more broadband funding to come down soon this summer. There have been issues in the past, including an inaccurate map of who actually has good internet in New Mexico and past grants that will no longer sufficiently cover internet set-up needs in tribal nations.
All of these awards are funded with $65 billion authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
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