By Ryan Boetel for Albuquerque Journal | June 25, 2023
Rural NM has some of the worst access to high-speed internet. Here’s what the federal government is doing to address the disconnect.
Photo above: Horacio Lizama, left, from Medanales, and Juan Andres Maestas, from Abiquiú, work on one of several computers provided for people at the El Rito Library on Thursday. Eddie Moore / Journal
EL RITO — At the El Rito Library, VHS cassettes of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Gone with the Wind” are for rent. Many locals can’t get high-speed internet access, so streaming isn’t an option.
Several people on Thursday afternoon were using the library for its internet. It’s one of the only public places with reliable service in the region.
Alison Brislin, a librarian, said a big part of her job has become guiding people through basic internet skills, such as using portals or paying bills, which are becoming more and more common parts of life.
“You’re super-disconnected. We need the internet for everything now,” Brislin said. “Before, it was a luxury to have the internet. Now it’s becoming more of a necessity.”
From the Bootheel in the southwest corner of the state to Abiquiú in the north, there are parts of New Mexico with some of the worst access to high-speed internet in the country.
But now, more than a hundred million dollars is pouring into the state from the federal government for large-scale broadband projects already underway. Government officials say the projects will address sharp divides in the state — both between urban and rural residents and across racial lines, in terms of who can access high-speed internet.
Luis Reyes, the CEO of Kit Carson Electric Co-op, which has been tapped for more than $20 million in grants and loans to build a fiber network throughout northern New Mexico, said the projects will be transformative for New Mexico.
“It’s very archaic,” Reyes said of the quality of the internet in parts of the state. “What’s happening is we’re leaving a lot of the kids behind because they don’t have the same tools and opportunities as (students) in the metro areas have.”
Kit Carson Electric, which has been offering internet services in northern New Mexico since 1999, recently received a $23.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build a fiber cable network to bring high-speed internet to about 2,693 people, 42 businesses, 34 farms and eight educational facilities in Rio Arriba County. He said many of the customers live in the Abiquiú and El Rito areas. The company is also required to put up an additional $5 million as a loan for the project, Reyes said.
The grant was one of six recently announced, worth a total of about $123 million, that will fund a series of broadband infrastructure projects across the most rural areas of the state. The grants were awarded from September 2022 to March 2023, according to USDA documents.
Reyes said he’s hoping that customers in the El Rito and Abiquiú areas could start getting hooked up to the fiber network sometime in the fall.
Money for the projects was earmarked in an infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law in 2021. The law is funding a wide variety of infrastructure projects across the country, including several in New Mexico.
Once completed, Reyes said internet and cellphone service will greatly improve in the Abiquiú and El Rito areas.
“It’s kind of like you’re riding a bike to get to some place and then we’re going to put you in a race car,” he said.
Broadband Now, an industry watchdog group, ranked New Mexico 45th in terms of access to broadband internet in 2023, according to the service’s website. Only West Virginia, Alaska, Mississippi, Arkansas, Vermont and Missouri ranked worse.
There were stark differences between rural communities and urban centers.
Nearly 99% of Los Alamos County and 98% of Bernalillo County residents had access to 100 megabits per-second quality service. Conversely, no one in Catron County has access to that level of service and just 1% of Luna County residents, 1.2% of Socorro County residents, and 7% of people in Hidalgo County have access to high-quality broadband, according to the group’s website.
The disparity is also reflected along racial lines: In New Mexico, 6% of Anglo residents lack internet access, compared with 12% of Hispanics or Latinos, while nearly a quarter of the state’s American Indian population doesn’t have broadband access, according to the website.
Read the full story at abqjournal.com.