Broadband connects the dots in telecom

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By Sherry Robinson

It’s another one of those lists with New Mexico bringing up the rear. The subject is broadband access.

New Mexico ranks 46th nationally in Internet use and 36th in broadband (high-speed Internet) telecommunications, according to the U. S. Department of Commerce. About 78 percent of New Mexicans have DSL, compared with 82 percent nationally; 77 percent have access to cable modem, compared with 96 percent nationally.

This isn’t just the stuff of computer geeks. When potential outside employers look us over, they want to know about “connectivity,” and our economic developers usually have to change the subject.

Also, broadband holds the key to work-at-home jobs and home-based businesses that could do wonders for small towns.

It seems like New Mexico has always been behind the curve in telecom access, whatever the technology. It’s the old problem of great distances, small population and money, and it’s particularly acute in rural areas.

Lately, a new test by the Federal Communications Commission shows New Mexico among the nation’s worst in download speeds. We can’t even say, Thank God for Mississippi this time. The labs, the universities and portions of Albuquerque are competitive; the rest of the state isn’t. In upload speeds we look a little better.

(Geek alert: Akamai, the world’s largest content delivery network, also shows New Mexico near the bottom in download speeds, although they vary by location.)

So when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dangled $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for broadband projects, it got our attention. At least 50 New Mexico companies applied, but most are still waiting to hear. The selection process has been painfully slow, so only about $200 million of the $4 billion first round has trickled out so far.

Still, the trickles are pretty exciting.

In recent months the Commerce Department awarded $32 million to the Navajo Nation for 530 miles of fiber, 20 miles of connections and 59 microwave towers reaching 30,000 homes and other buildings – this in a region where 60 percent of homes lack telephone service. It also awarded $11.25 million to ENMR-Plateau Communications, an East Side telephone co-operative, to expand broadband in its territory and build another 74 miles of new fiber.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $57 million to LEACO Rural Telephone Cooperative in Hobbs to build 462 miles of fiber and another $11.5 million to Western New Mexico Telephone Company for last-mile broadband services to remote and unserved locations and critical community facilities.

In northeastern New Mexico Baca Valley Telephone Co. will receive $3.2 million, grant and loan, to bring DSL to the area and replace outdated copper wire and microwave systems.

Other stimulus awards include $9.6 million in loans and grants to the Peñasco Valley Telecommunications Cooperative in Artesia to extend fiber-optics to Hondo, Mayhill and Hope and $1.26 million in grants and loans to San Ildefonso Pueblo for the TewaCom Broadband Initiative that will expand service to 2,405 households.

The activity demonstrates that the interest and innovation have been there, just not the money. “It’s an expensive proposition to lay down fiber in such remote places,” said Terry Mullins of Peñasco Valley Telecommunications in the New Mexico Business Weekly. “Without the grant money we just couldn’t do it.”

It conjures up rural electrification during the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, we’ve heard proposals here that local governments use bonds to beef up their capacity. Now we have Farmington’s application to be a test site for Google’s gigabit-per-second Internet network, but Farmington isn’t sitting on its app. Organizers are now drumming up private sector support for broadband so the project moves forward regardless. Go Farmington!

Even these projects may not allow us to run with the big dogs in broadband, but it could pull us off the bottom. And maybe we can go back to saying, Thank God for Mississippi.