Southwestern New Mexico is poised to become a center of economic vitality, according to Christie Ann Harvey, but it might not reach its full potential without better internet service.
Harvey, who runs a nonprofit that works with Luna County on development projects, says the area’s natural beauty and proximity to the state’s only 24-hour border crossing between the U.S. and Mexico could help entice people looking for a new home. But she said high-speed internet has become a “critical infrastructure need” in a place where less than 1% of homes have access to internet speeds the U.S. government considers adequate.
“We are seeking to become a destination and improve the life of our people,” Harvey said. “But to do that we have to have the basic necessities that help us attract business.”
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday announced plans to distribute $42.5 billion nationwide to provide reliable and affordable internet service for every home and business in the U.S. by 2030. Achieving that ambitious goal could transform places like Luna County, allowing new businesses and remote learning, telemedicine and other services that require reliable internet service.
“Let us agree: In the 21st century, in America, high-speed internet is not a luxury; it is a necessity,” Harris said.
States and their mostly new broadband offices have been assessing their needs ahead of the official launch of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Monday’s announcement merely set things in motion.
States must complete a multi-step process before they can use the funds.
“Just because you were allocated the money doesn’t mean you get it,” said Kelly Schlegel, director of New Mexico’s broadband office.
Schlegel and her colleagues in other state broadband offices must submit initial proposals before the end of the year.
States must commit to first connecting unserved locations that lack access to internet download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. According to the map the Federal Communications Commission used to determine each state’s allotment, more than 7% of the country falls into this category.
The states’ initial proposals must identify unserved locations that aren’t already receiving money from other broadband programs. They must give also give local nonprofits, internet service providers and governments to suggest other locations in need of improved services.
States must also outline plans to hire skilled workers, assess the resiliency of physical infrastructure in the face of climate threats, and ensure that connections forged with BEAD money will be affordable.
“The connection alone is not going to offer the economic value, the social value, to communities,” said Kathryn de Wit, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s broadband access initiative. “It’s only useful if people can get online and use it, so having that (affordability) requirement as a condition of funding is really important.”
Once the initial proposals are approved, states can access up to 20 percent of their allotments to begin awarding grants to telecommunications companies, electric cooperatives and other broadband providers. The remaining 80 percent of funds will be released once the federal government approves a separate, final proposal, which outlines, among other details, how states plan to hold the internet providers they’ve selected accountable for spending the money properly.
During Monday’s announcement, Vice President Harris described a visit to Sunset, Louisiana, a town of about 3,000 people near Lafayette where nearly 40% of households lack reliable high-speed internet. She recalled meeting people who can’t apply for remote work and can’t start or grow a small business. She said she met with students who, during the pandemic, had to sit in the parking lot of a local library to submit their homework.
“These stories are not uncommon,” Harris said.
Community engagement is key to improving broadband access in Louisiana, which is set to receive more than $1 billion from the program, said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of the state’s broadband office. Iyengar said he and his colleagues spent the last year and a half visiting 90 cities, towns and villages across Louisiana to understand where the needs for connectivity are.
“We have … driven probably over 30,000 miles around the state meeting different constituents where they are and understanding the use cases of broadband as it relates to first responders, farmers, small business owners, economic development folks, librarians, health care professionals, etc.,” said Iyengar, whose office released the first volume of its initial proposal in May.
This back-and-forth between the states, the federal government and the public sets the BEAD program apart from other federal broadband aid programs, de Wit said.
“There are many more requirements in place for states to demonstrate that they have planned for this funding and they have engaged the public and evaluated options,” de Wit said.
Experts agree that the stakes are high. Blair Levin, former FCC chief of staff who was the executive director of the National Broadband Plan under former President Barack Obama, called the program a “one-shot deal.”
“If the effort succeeds, there’ll be no need for another,” Levin said. “If it doesn’t succeed, people will say, ‘Why would we do that?’”
Communities like Luna County are counting on federal and state broadband programs to close the digital divide once and for all. To understand how dramatic the impact could be, Harvey said you only have to consider other changes already underway in the community.
Construction of a $20 million berm in Luna County to stem extreme flooding will likely begin at the beginning of 2024, Harvey said. Work on a 160-acre industrial park in the village of Columbus is slated to start soon, too. A solar and battery storage project for the county was recently approved by New Mexico’s public regulatory commission.
“As the businesses need to develop, and we’ve got this port of entry that will be growing, we don’t want to be held back because we don’t have service there for these people,” Harvey said.