If it was not already clear, the pandemic has revealed that broadband is now an essential utility service that influences the future of our society and our state.
Based on its study of the issue, the League of Women Voters of New Mexico has described “efficient, high-speed access to the Internet for all New Mexico residents — regardless of geographic location or neighborhood demographics as a necessity for assuring equal access to local and state government, for maintaining openness and transparency in government activities, for communicating with legislative leaders, for engaging in political discourse, for competing in the global marketplace, and for assuring that voters receive the information they need to participate in our democracy.” Unequal access, especially with education and health care during the pandemic, has been a glaring problem.
What is meant by “broadband?” It is one of a variety of high-speed internet technologies that is faster than the traditional dial-up. To be considered broadband, the download speed needs at least 25 Mbps (Megabits per second) of data and the upload needs 3 Mbps. These minimums are not particularly fast. According to Broadband Now (https://broadbandnow.com/New-Mexico), New Mexico is ranked 49th for state broadband access. Rural areas are at the top of the list for lacking connectivity, as are some urban neighborhoods.
The hardware being used makes a difference in speed and influences connectivity issues also. Providing hardware and support services are as important as the infrastructure. In a wealthy country like the United States, these inequalities are unacceptable. Anyone living in the United States should have the type of dependable broadband needed for light (one devise and basic functions) to heavy (several devices and high-demand applications) use at home.
Solving the problem will take private- and public-sector investors working together. Microsoft is working with numerous states and partners through a program called “Microsoft Airband Initiative,” using a mixed model, combining wireless technologies, traditional fiber-based connectivity, satellite coverage and TV white spaces (unused “buffer” gaps between TV channels). This is intended to reduce the cost and time of extending broadband access to communities across the country. Microsoft is even involving 4-H youth in developing technology skills with the public.
The New Mexico Department of Information Technology (DoIT) has developed a Broadband Strategic Plan with goals to eliminate the broadband gap in New Mexico. Schools can get discounts for construction and installation of broadband infrastructure through a special program funded by the Federal Communication Commission. A DoIT survey of public school technology directors gave specific information about students access to devices, as well as the internet. The information guides funding and project development. The DoIT has created Hotspots in numerous locations on tribal lands, in parking lots, and public libraries.
Funding these ambitious goals will take collaboration among private businesses, grant programs, service providers, schools, students, organizations, tribal, local, state, and federal governments. Efforts can be coordinated by the New Mexico Office of Broadband (https://www.doit.state.nm.us/broadband/). Equitable development of broadband is crucial to New Mexico’s future.
Kathy Brook and Eileen VanWie are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Southern New Mexico.
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