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Lawmakers question whether statewide school internet network will function in rural areas

State officials aim to set up same broadband connection for all NM schools by 2027
The statewide education network aims to give schools in New Mexico the option to jump onto an internet server that reaches all across the state by 2027. (Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

State lawmakers expressed familiar skepticism during recent updates on New Mexico’s broadband internet investments.

Public education and state broadband officials set a goal to give hundreds of schools – serving a total of nearly 400,000 students – in New Mexico the option to jump onto an internet server that reaches all across the state by 2027.

But some lawmakers representing areas where internet access and reliability have historically been uneven across New Mexico voiced concerns about whether the state can keep up with the demand.

“For years, we’ve had the hit and miss of connectivity around the state,” Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert (R-Corrales) said. Powdrell-Culbert, who lost her seat to Democrat Kathleen Cates in November, continued on to say that this kind of work to get stable internet access throughout the state is important and needs to be done hand-in-hand with local providers.

The pandemic exacerbated the need for internet access in New Mexico’s public schools. Local school districts and state officials spent millions in federal pandemic aid to build technology systems to give hardware like tablets or laptops to every student, and invested in installing networks to connect those students to the internet.

To boost the state’s internet infrastructure further, the governor signed a bill into law last year that required the setup of this statewide education network.

Ovidiu Viorica is the broadband and technology manager with the N.M. Public Schools Facilities Authority. He talked to multiple interim state legislative committees in the past month about the network. Planning started in April 2021, and definitive work started last month.

“We all know that whenever internet is not available, the educational process just cannot occur,” Viorica said.

99% of public schools connected to internet

Viorica said all N.M. public schools except four – Tse Yi’ Gai High School in Pueblo Pintada, Lybrook Elementary in Jemez Mountain, and San Antonio and Midway Elementary schools in Socorro – have high speed internet connections. Those four schools not connected should be by July 2023, he said.

Points of connection, called nodes, will initially be set up in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Gallup, Farmington, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, and broadband will travel across major routes between those points, connecting to schools along the way. Additional nodes will be set up in more cities later on, most of which will be at higher education facilities like the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State University.

About $10 million of state and federal funding will be dedicated to this project annually for the next five years, adding up to $50 million to get it all set up by 2027.

While the main goal is to provide good internet for all New Mexico schools, Viorica said there will also be other benefits, like sharing educational resources and boosting cybersecurity.

He said it’ll be easier to fend off digital attacks on schools by protecting one big internet stream as opposed to all the smaller, individual internet networks – though work will still need to be done on a local level, and schools probably need more funding to do that.

Viorica said getting all this going is not an easy task. Not many specific details were given at either legislative meeting, and few lawmakers asked challenging or specific questions about the work.

“It is quite a tedious effort to go through the steps to establish this,” he said.

Will it work?

Viorica talked to the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee on Nov. 17 about the internet improvement projects. But not all the lawmakers were convinced it’ll be foolproof.

One lawmaker, Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R-Lovington), said he doesn’t see how the broadband collaboration for all the schools will work overall. He said he’s worried that technical details about rural capacity and connectivity based on the existing servers aren’t really being worked out.

“All summer long, I’ve been looking at maps from yourself that don’t coincide with the rural network that exists,” he said.

Viorica reassured the legislator that the maps have been conceptual and don’t represent an exact path of circuits.

Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo) wasn’t surprised schools in Rio Arriba County weren’t on the state’s list to be considered for the new network. Viorica said school districts with internet service provider contracts cannot join the statewide network until those agreements are ended.

He said most schools in Herrera’s district are already on a regional network called the North Central Consortium, something put in place as a precursor to the full statewide server. Once contracts like that are up, he said, those other schools can apply to get on this statewide network.

But even just applying could be difficult for some smaller counties. Herrera said there’s a lot of turnover in education, making it hard to get those kinds of applications actually done.

“It’s very difficult from the rural perspective,” she said.

Viorica admitted that though the state is trying to help with technical assistance in applying for the broadband process, “it’s a work in progress” and is particularly difficult for smaller, local entities.

“The Office of Broadband is really working hard to put in place some technical assistance resources that will (help),” he said. “It doesn’t help today, but it’s probably going to help in the coming years.”

The state’s broadband office was established in 2021 with funding to staff six full-time employees. Dianne Lindstrom, deputy director of the state’s broadband office, said this statewide network could get set up even faster if the Legislature increases staffing resources when the session starts next year.

Pettigrew also voiced concerns that this large network would leave local internet providers out of the mix as they try to compete with state and federal funding.

“Our co-ops are built and put the time and effort over decades to get this done,” he said. “And if we turn around and build a network that the co-ops are taken out of the picture on, that’s not going to look good on national news. And I’ll make sure it makes it there.”

But Viorica said the plan is to build on existing services, working with local providers to do so. He said that’ll be the most cost-effective way to set up this internet connection and those providers are best positioned to provide services.

“We want to work with them because they’re local. They’re there,” he said. “They’re going to make sure that the network operates properly.”

For more stories from Source New Mexico, visit sourcenm.com.