SANTA FE – New Mexico legislators are advancing bills that modernize efforts to expand access to high-speed internet service, as remote work and schooling exposes infrastructure gaps during the coronavirus pandemic.
Outside New Mexico’s metro areas, internet access can be slow, expensive or simply not available. Efforts to expand the state’s network of fiber optic cables over the past decade have relied on a variety of federal programs that often require state matching funds.
Proposals from House and Senate lawmakers would set up a centralized clearinghouse within state government for improving internet access – following the example of many other states that address broadband internet through one agency.
Currently, that crucial infrastructure work in New Mexico is assigned to corners of seven state agencies, ranging from a three-person team at the Department of Information Technology to staff members at the Public Education Department. Responsibilities run the gamut from digging trenches to wiring school libraries in Native American communities.
Much of New Mexico’s high-speed internet is distributed by fiber optic cable that has to be buried in the ground – in a labor- and permit-intensive process.
A 2017 state law allowed cities and counties to take advantage of underground utility work to inexpensively insert fiber optic cable.
But Democratic state Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo said it remains difficult in New Mexico to lay and maintain fiber optic cable than it is in other states. In Arizona and Colorado, for example, state laws reserve rights of way and standard leasing rates in utility trenches, according to a report by New Mexico technology officials.
A bill in the House would formalize that three-person team inside the Department of Information Technology, elevating it to a full-blown division with almost $1 million in funding and the authority to coordinate digging with other state and local agencies, schools and private companies to avoid overlapping costs. That bill was scheduled for a House floor vote as early as Wednesday.
Herrera, a co-sponsor, said the reorganization aims to help students but won’t deliver new internet access immediately – even in the fall if the pandemic continues to hobble schools.
“It’s not going to happen in five months. A good plan is going to take five years,” Herrera said.
The state Senate on Wednesday endorsed a similar bill for a centralized broadband division within the Department of Information Technology that does not include a spending allocation.
Looming over the initiative is a rapidly changing technological landscape for high-speed internet that includes wireless access from networks of high-flying blimps and low-orbit satellites.
Herrera said the new agency division would also be able to coordinate adoption of emerging non-cable technologies like satellites and weather balloons.