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New Mexico trying to organize broadband efforts

February 10, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021 file photo final preparations are made at the New Mexico House of Representative as state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse in Santa Fe, N.M. The New Mexico legislature is considering a bill that would consolidate the efforts of multiple state agencies to expand high-speed internet. The effort comes a year into a coronavirus pandemic has pushed education and healthcare online, eroding resident's access to public services proportional to how far they are from an internet connection. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021 file photo final preparations are made at the New Mexico House of Representative as state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse in Santa Fe, N.M. The New Mexico legislature is considering a bill that would consolidate the efforts of multiple state agencies to expand high-speed internet. The effort comes a year into a coronavirus pandemic has pushed education and healthcare online, eroding resident's access to public services proportional to how far they are from an internet connection. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021 file photo final preparations are made at the New Mexico House of Representative as state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse in Santa Fe, N.M. The New Mexico legislature is considering a bill that would consolidate the efforts of multiple state agencies to expand high-speed internet. The effort comes a year into a coronavirus pandemic has pushed education and healthcare online, eroding resident's access to public services proportional to how far they are from an internet connection. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Legislature is considering a bill that would consolidate the efforts of multiple state agencies to expand high-speed internet.

The effort comes a year into the pandemic that has pushed education and health care online, eroding residents’ access to public services proportional to how far they are from an internet connection.

“We watched the collapse of our educational system during the COVID, and during the shutdown. And we all were watching our kids and our grandkids, dealing with this problem,” said Rep. Susan Herrera, of Embudo, who represents residents in three surrounding rural counties north of Santa Fe.

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One in five students didn’t have access to the internet at all in the first months of the pandemic, according to a survey by the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority.

At-home COVID-19 testing rolled out by the state last year required participants to use video chat. Vaccine distribution efforts focus on getting residents to sign up online.

That might complicate things for residents 65 and older, who are less likely to have internet access. However, there is a workaround via phone.

The Connect New Mexico Act introduced by Rep. Herrera and four others won’t solve the state’s internet woes during the pandemic but could increase the rate at which broadband is expanded.

The bill made it through a House committee focused on infrastructure Tuesday in an 8-1 vote. It will next be heard in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. The state’s annual legislative session started in January.

If passed, it would allocate $950,000 to create a broadband clearinghouse inside the Department of Information Technology. The new agency would distribute an existing $19 million fund to match federal broadband grants, a task currently shared by departments including DoIT.

“Most of the money that comes in for broadband is through federal grants. That’s just how this works. So what we needed was a pool of money, and a staff to really get those grants in and to provide the match,” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, of Albuquerque.

Other bills under consideration in the house would allocate funds to expand broadband directly, including a proposal a one-time allocation of $95 million for the Native American Library Internet and Education bill.

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The New Mexico Department of Information Technology estimated last year that providing internet access to all New Mexicans would cost between $2 billion and $5 billion for fiber optic cable, and under $1 billion for a combination of fiber optic and radio technology.

Worldwide, companies like SpaceX and Google are testing technologies — satellite networks and high altitude balloons — that could cut costs for rural broadband in the future.

“We don’t specify that it has to be fiber line, it might be a dirigible in the sky, it might be a satellite, it might be a tower,” Figueroa said.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.