March 3, 2021

Senate passes bill creating state division to upgrade broadband system

Schoolchildren are still sitting in cars to access Wi-Fi hotspots to take part in virtual lessons, a leading Democratic senator told his colleagues Wednesday.

That’s one reason Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, urged the Senate to support Senate Bill 93, which would create a central state office to develop and upgrade New Mexico’s broadband system.

The state currently doesn’t have a blueprint for broadband, said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque and co-sponsor of the legislation. He said creating a plan is the key focus of the bill. 

“Broadband will never happen until we put that plan in place,” Muñoz told the Senate, which voted 33-6 to support the bill following about an hour of debate Wednesday, sending the measure to the House. 

Citing a 2020 report that said despite investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, access to broadband services has remained spotty for many New Mexicans, Padilla said only by creating an agency to focus on the problem will the state solve it. 

Among other functions, the new entity would work to draw matching federal funds for every dollar New Mexico invests in its broadband system — a goal that could bring in somewhere between $9 and $13 for every dollar spent by the state, Padilla said. 

Though improvements and new investments — a total of $325 million between 2015 and 2018 — have been made in offering and expanding broadband, the fact so many state agencies play a role in the effort leads to gaps in data and service, that 2020 report said. 

That report suggested New Mexico create an anchor agency to address the issue.

New Mexico often ranks near or at the bottom in national studies when it comes to broadband capability. A recent analysis ranked it 42nd in the country — and behind neighboring states Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Utah — when it comes to connectivity

That leaves somewhere between 13 percent and 20 percent of New Mexico’s roughly 200,000 homes and businesses without broadband access, according to the 2020 report. 

A proposed Office of Broadband Access and Expansion would be charged with creating maps and collecting data about broadband access for homes and businesses in the state, and setting standards of quality for broadband speeds. 

It would also work with federal, state, regional, local and tribal agencies to obtain licenses for rights of way for broadband infrastructure. 

Those efforts are needed, said Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque. 

“It is absolutely crucial for our future that the state address that problem … and expand to every corner of the state that is rural that does not have broadband,” she said. 

Not all lawmakers were sold on the idea. Though Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, voted for the bill, he told Padilla the legislation had no provisions for holding the new agency accountable should plans not work out as intended. 

He added the bill does not offer specifics on how much more broadband the state could access with the help of the new division. 

“We need to ask critical questions, including appropriation … what results do we get?” he said. “The bill doesn’t really provide accountability, and so it falls upon us [as legislators].”

Some Republicans raised concerns the creation of a new state agency will simply add to the growth of governmental entities. “Be careful,” said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, who voted against the bill. He said he could see the state needing to invest more money and more employees into the new office in a year. 

Though the plan does not have an appropriation, Padilla said the new division will be wrapped into the existing New Mexico Department of Information Technology and use its employees, who will be repurposed to support the broadband efforts.