July 9, 2023

‘We’re gonna all be connected.’ Invest in America tour touts rural broadband expansion

White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu speaks at a press conference at Los Vecinos Community Center in Tijeras July 7, 2023. Also pictured are Se. Martin Heinrich, Bernalillo County Deputy Fire Chief Zachary Lardy and Sen. Ben Ray Luján.

Nicole Maxwell/New Mexico Political Report

White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu speaks at a press conference at Los Vecinos Community Center in Tijeras July 7, 2023. Also pictured are Se. Martin Heinrich, Bernalillo County Deputy Fire Chief Zachary Lardy and Sen. Ben Ray Luján.

A group of dignitaries including Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich joined White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu while he toured New Mexico to promote rural broadband expansion. 

One of the places that will benefit from a recent bipartisan infrastructure law is Tijeras.

Tijeras is a village in the canyon that separates the Sandia Mountains to the north and the Manzano Mountains to the south, about 10 miles east of Albuquerque on I-25.

Many of the people who live in and around the village have internet access that is spotty at best, which is common across New Mexico.

One way the Biden administration is seeking to help with connectivity is through Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grants such as the $49 million middle mile grant to Plateau Telecommunications to expand broadband connectivity along a 150 mile corridor in rural central New Mexico.

“This grant represents a significant milestone for our organization, as it enables us to further our mission and make a lasting impact in the communities we will be serving in the future,” Plateau Telecommunications CEO Launa Waller said. “The funding provided through this grant will empower us to expand our network, enhance our services and reach a larger audience.”

The project’s total cost is $103 million, Waller said.

“This is the largest grant that we’ve ever received. Make no mistake, this is a huge project,” Waller said.

The grant is through both the BIL and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for a project that will cover State Highway 14 and State Highway 333, also known as Old Route 66.

“It’s going to be huge. This will be fantastic for the community,” Village of Tijeras Mayor Jake Bruton said. “The majority of our small business owners, on a daily basis, have issues with connectivity, speed, things like that.”

Bruton added that the added connectivity would also be good from an economic development perspective as a means for those businesses that would like to move their operations out of Albuquerque and into a mountain area.

Aside from the potential economic development impacts the project could bring are the public safety issues that the project seeks to address.

“Plateau’s NTIA award to build out this middle mile infrastructure for the fiber backbone is really going to have a profound impact on public safety in Bernalillo County, specifically in this area, the East Mountains,” Bernalillo County Deputy Fire Chief Zachary Lardy said. “The East Mountain area is one of our highest risk areas as far as from an infrastructure standpoint, reliability in the fiber backbone is going to be critical to our fire department and its success going forward.”

Another aspect is education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools pivoted to virtual learning as a means of continuing education through a public health crisis. The experience showed across the state and across the country, where connectivity needs were at their most dire.

The oldest public charter high school in New Mexico is East Mountain High School in Sandia Park just off U.S. Highway 14.

The school does not have boundaries and takes students from Albuquerque to Mountainair and beyond.

“Equitable access to high speed internet is not just a luxury anymore, it’s an essential tool for educational success,” East Mountain High School Principal Trey Smith said.

EMHS has an internationally rated debate program without a lecture hall or a media center, an innovative music program without a dedicated performance space and a robotics team without a makerspace, Smith said.

“Like many schools did during the pandemic, our staff were up delivering hotspots to students who had no internet access or limited access out here in our community,” Smith said. “Our students are still struggling with access when they need to work on homework, and they need to look at projects over the weekend.”

The project will take about five years to complete including the time needed for permitting and environmental studies, Waller said. 

Another connectivity project was announced this week was in Santo Domingo Pueblo which was awarded $12.7 million through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program of the Biden Administration’s Investing in America agenda.

The Pueblo’s funding will be used to help those living on the pueblo to access affordable internet, telehealth, telework and remote learning.

A press conference was held Thursday at Santa Fe Indian School to celebrate the Pueblo’s $12.7 million and an additional $675 million awarded to New Mexico as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.

“We’re here today to talk about one very specific part of that, which as many of you already know is not a luxury, but it’s a necessity. If you didn’t believe it, COVID taught you real well,” Landrieu said Friday. “So, the President made a promise that he was going to do everything he could to make sure that everybody in America had access to high speed internet and will deliver on that promise.”

So far, New Mexico has been awarded almost $1.4 billion from the Investing in America programs.

The grant funding is for infrastructure, digital equity and affordability programs across the state.