Say goodbye to the underfed gorilla

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By Sherry Robinson

We won’t have Qwest to kick around any more. We have a new provider to kick around.
If you think this doesn’t affect you because you have another provider of telephone and Internet services, think again. Like the song says, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone. Everybody in New Mexico is connected to Qwest, one way or another, and so are our plans for improved broadband (high-speed) connections.
Following an acquisition, Qwest is now CenturyLink, which promises to make good on Qwest’s commitment to expand broadband into 75 percent of the rural areas in its service territory.  On the National Broadband Map (http://www.broadbandmap.gov/), New Mexico still looks like undiscovered country. We see dense concentrations of color in all the places you would expect, and our neighboring states all have their hotspots, but New Mexico looks like it wasn’t invited to the party.
However, the site’s tools, which allow you to rank states and counties, indicate we’re not entirely backward. New Mexico is 37th in speed, 46th in technology, and 19th in providers. (Tools also allow you to enter your address, community or reservation and see the broadband service area and providers.) More interesting are the county rankings. Los Alamos County (surprise!) ranks first for speed, technology and number of providers. The heavily populated Bernalillo County is only fourth in speed, third in technology and second in providers, while Lea County is third in speed and second in technology. Valencia County is second in speed and fourth in technology.
We hope CenturyLink has broad enough shoulders to help us catch up, but we still have work to do in the regulatory arena. Qwest faced an unresolved Catch 22 in New Mexico: It lost so many landlines to cell phone users that it lacked the revenues to improve services, and unregulated providers were eating its lunch.  In the last legislative session,     Qwest made another stab at deregulation. SB 4, by Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, would have allowed the Public Regulation Commission to decide whether Qwest and Windstream had enough competition to be removed from PRC jurisdiction.
The interim Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee endorsed the bill, and it passed the Senate Corporations Committee. Supporters included PRC Chairman Patrick Lyons and two other commissioners; Windstream; the Association of Commerce and Industry; Charles Farrell, lobbyist for the state’s 13 rural phone companies; and Adriana Badal, of Sacred Wind, which provides services on the Navajo Reservation.
Farrell and Badal both said that if Qwest was no longer a viable company, it would affect every other telecom organization in the state because they all interconnect with Qwest.
PRC Commissioner Jason Marks was opposed, warning of the threat to rural areas if Qwest were deregulated. Marks always called Qwest the 800-pound gorilla but didn’t notice the gorilla was malnourished. The bill died; another, more innocuous telecom bill also died.
In 2000, when US West became Qwest, I wrote: “When big becomes bigger, we consumers don’t buy the usual propaganda about how our services and choices will improve under Goliath Unlimited. But in the case of US West, we have a sense of resignation – even relief.”
US West, once a good corporate citizen, had become one of the state’s most disliked companies as a result of bad management and bad regulation. One single decision, a rate cut ordered by the former State Corporation Commission, kept New Mexico in the Dark Ages of high-speed telecom because it hurt the company’s ability to pay for new services.
New Mexico has been stuck in a dated regulatory approach. When the very organizations that might suffer from an unleashed Qwest stand up to support deregulation, elected officials should pay attention.
If we want broadband, if we want to join the new millennium, a few lawmakers and commissioners need to leave their comfort zones.

Sherry Robinson
© New Mexico News Services 2011