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Lack of oversight hobbles New Mexico’s broadband efforts

August 17, 2020 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Efforts to expand broadband in New Mexico have been hobbled by a lack of oversight and central control, legislative analysts and state agency leaders told lawmakers Monday.

Some $325 million in federal and state funding has been leveraged since 2014 to expand broadband to every school district in the state and many libraries. But New Mexico has missed out on funds due to poor staffing and coordination, according to a report by legislative researchers Monday.

John Chadwick of the Public Education Department, one of three state agencies in charge of expanding access, echoed the report’s conclusions.

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“We’ve had some silos, and I think silos are counterproductive,” he told lawmakers during a meeting.

Chadwick guides schools and libraries through the process of applying for federal grants, while another half-dozen agencies have some role in other aspects of high-speed internet procurement, from incentivizing private companies to lay fiber optic cable to coordinating with tribal governments.

In a report last year, legislative researchers highlighted one example of the Department of Information Technology losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants citing a lack of knowledgeable staff as the primary reason.

Around one in five state residents lack the kind of high-speed internet that would allow fully participating in online learning, telemedicine or modern remote work opportunities.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the lack of broadband access in low-income and rural areas of the U.S. and created a new imperative for leaders to meet the needs of the estimated 3 million students nationwide who are without internet at home. An AP analysis last year of census data showed an estimated 17% of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet.

Despite an increase in connectivity over the past five years, New Mexico has consistently lagged around 10 percentage points behind the national average, according to the report presented Monday by the legislative analysts.

The impact is being felt particularly hard by public school students, many of whom resumed online learning last week after a July spike in coronavirus cases led to a delay in returning to in-person classes.

Officials have faced an uphill battle to get students connected this year.

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In March, around half of the students failed to attend their online classes due to poor internet connections or lack of devices. A survey by the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority taken at the time found that 22% of students didn’t have access to internet in their home and 32% didn’t have their own device.

A higher percentage of students are likely connecting to online learning after school districts and the Public Education Department worked to distribute thousands of laptops to students and installed some temporary internet hot spots.

Legislators are considering introducing bills during the next session aimed at increasing funding for long-term broadband projects.

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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.