The House Rural Development, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee approved a bill expanding the Rural Telecommunications Act on a 6-0 vote Thursday. HB 206 was sponsored by Rep. Joseph L. Sanchez, D-Alcalde. The bill would expand access to rural customers to have a landline for broadband access.
“(The bill) amends the Rural Telecommunication Act of New Mexico,” Sanchez said. “The bill also provides for the use of the state Rural Universal Fund for consumer broadband-only loops. This allows small rural carriers to offer broadband and the customer not have to maintain a dial tone phone as well.”
Sanchez also proposed an amendment to address an issue in the bill’s Fiscal Impact Report.
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.
Despite investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, access to broadband services has remained out of reach for many New Mexicans in rural and impoverished areas. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated that problem, especially when it comes to public school students trying to learn remotely.
That’s the message members of the House Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee heard from a number of lawmakers, experts and members of the public during a Tuesday hearing on the issue. “We don’t need to talk about the need, we need to talk about the how — how are we going to do this?” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque.
Figueroa is one of five House legislators, all Democrats, pushing for passage of House Bill 10, an initiative that would create a broadband division within the New Mexico Department of Information Technology. The committee voted 8-1 to approve the measure, sending it on to the House Appropriations Committee.
That proposed department would serve as a center of operations to provide planning and technical assistance to local governments, state agencies and public education institutions to develop and initiate broadband programs. Assistance will include guidance in applying for funding for such initiatives.
The goal, Figueroa said, is to create a central state agency focused on expanding affordable broadband access to all parts of the state.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on Tuesday that she is extending the state’s public health order to stay at home until the end of April to continue social distancing. New Mexico has not peaked yet for COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus. Lujan Grisham and other state officials spoke Tuesday on a press conference streamed on Facebook about the state’s need to continue social distancing to flatten the curve so COVID-19 positive patients will not overwhelm hospitals in the state. That would cause more deaths, she said. So far, residents in New Mexico are not staying at home.
New Mexico lawmakers are delivering on a promise to improve one of the state’s last-in-the-country rankings — the speed of broadband internet. Several bills are moving through the Legislature, and two have cleared the Senate and House of Representatives and are heading to Gov. Susana Martinez for her consideration. Each would make it easier to expand broadband internet to underserved rural areas where the sparse population makes it difficult for companies to recoup their costs. House Bill 60 would allow private companies installing fiber optics to share a trench unearthed by the state or a local government. The change reclassifies broadband as an economic development project and exempts it from a constitutional provision that prohibits taxpayer support to private companies.
Democrats in the state Legislature on Thursday outlined a six-point jobs plan, including a raise in the minimum wage and spending on public works projects, that they said would be their focus for the remaining 50 days of the legislative session. But Democrats were unable to project how many jobs would be created by the plan or provide details on how some parts of the plan would work. Still, they promised to deliver for a state still trying to find its economic footing more than seven years after the end of the Great Recession. “Today, families and young people in our state are confronted with poor prospects for getting a job,” Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said at a news conference on the Senate floor. “Far too many residents are living in real economic distress, and anxious about the future for themselves and their children.
[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]REP. JIM SMITH is the chair of the interim Science, Technology, and Telecom Committee[/box]
What does the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to impose utility style regulation on the Internet mean to the future of New Mexico’s promising high-tech economy? Well, imagine this. You’re riding the new chairlift on Kachina Peak in Taos, steadily making your way to the summit at 12,450 feet as you take in the spectacular scenery below. Suddenly there’s a power failure. The lift tops climbing and you’re left dangling, wondering if you’re ever going to reach the top.
[box]Jerry Apodaca is a former Governor of New Mexico.[/box]
The open spaces of New Mexico are integral to our state’s identity. We love our rural vistas, our deserts and forests, the peace and quiet. But let’s face it – it’s not easy to bring services such as high-speed Internet to rural areas of the state. We are fortunate that technological advances in wired, wireless and even satellite delivery are overcoming the issue of stringing coax, copper and fiber to every home and business in New Mexico.
In fact, also 99 percent of New Mexicans have access to wireless broadband coverage, according to BroadbandNow.com.