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Senate bill expands broadband access in New Mexico

SANTE FE, N.M – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill April 7 that aims to develop reliable, high-speed internet in the state and expand broadband access to all New Mexico residents.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill April 7 that aims to develop reliable, high-speed internet in the state and expand broadband access to all New Mexico residents. (Illustration by Kokopelli staff)

Senate Bill 93, The Broadband Access and Expansion Act, establishes a new state office — the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion — to oversee and coordinate broadband activities across state government agencies, local governments, tribal governmental organizations and internet service providers.

According to a study done in June 2020 by The Department of Information Technology, there are approximately 196,000 premises in New Mexico that do not have access to broadband internet. That works out to approximately 21% of the state’s 940,000 homes and businesses.

“The Office of Broadband Access and Expansion will help centralize and coordinate our efforts to build out a broadband infrastructure that will bring economic development, distance learning and telehealth delivery across the state, including some of the hardest-to-reach areas,” said Sen. Michael Padilla (D), one of the bill’s sponsors.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, the need for reliable internet access for students, families and businesses was greatly emphasized as school and work life were pushed into a digital space. This transition was very difficult for those who were not able to access the internet in their homes and for those whose internet connections could not handle the bandwidth needed for multiple family members to use online services all at once.

Rep. Harry Garcia (D), who sponsored a different bill aimed at improving public school funding on tribal lands, spoke last month about some of the challenges created by these technology gaps.

“It’s hard to get a quality education when your school lacks basic resources like adequate classrooms and internet connection. Yet, many of our rural and minority communities still face these challenges in 2021, because funds intended for these in-need schools have long been diverted elsewhere,” Garcia said.

More than one year after public schools switched to online formats, access to education has been difficult for both adults and younger students.

Not only will SB 93 improve broadband access, but on Wednesday, April 7, the governor signed SB 204, also sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, which will improve broadband access by making telecommunication services more equitable and more affordable, especially for underserved communities including those located on tribal lands.

“The pandemic exposed the tremendous need for communications infrastructure in our rural and tribal communities,” said Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo. “Broadband access will help our students succeed, local businesses thrive, and will ensure vital information reaches every citizen in our state.”

According to a report published by the Las Cruces Sun-News, Padilla said that the new Broadband Access and Expansion offices would do a thorough assessment of the state’s existing technology to better understand where the internet gaps are. The offices would then work with both local and federal partners to bring service to areas where they are not currently available.

New Mexico Information and Technology secretary John Salazar said he’s looking forward to partnering with legislators and other stakeholders to help develop and expand broadband access in the state, and suggested SB 93 was overdue. “I look forward to working closely with the council members in formulating a broadband framework plan that encompasses strategic planning, program oversight, and grant award methodologies,” Salazar said. “Many members of the legislature on both sides of the aisle worked diligently over the past year to understand the challenges we face in bringing broadband to New Mexico and ensure passage of this much-needed legislation. We look forward to working with them and stakeholders from a wide range of communities in the months ahead to ensure every New Mexican can get the reliable and affordable internet access they need and deserve.”

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