When COVID-19 shuttered schools and businesses in March 2020, New Mexicans, like people across the nation, realized quickly that enduring the pandemic would require a much heavier reliance on the internet than ever before.
But residents across southern New Mexico faced all the challenges that come with living in a digitally disconnected region. Swaths of rural areas lack high-speed infrastructure. And many families with access to high-speed options, usually in cities, can’t afford to pay for them. Others with internet service find it’s too slow, causing problems like patchy Zoom meetings, slow web browsing and trouble downloading documents or videos.
The federal government, through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, recognized this also and allocated $65 billion to provide high-speed internet “all across America,” which has state governments around the country vying to bring this money to their disconnected communities.
“Show us a plan that guarantees every single person in your state has access to high-speed, affordable internet,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo during a 2021 press briefing after the measure passed. “And then we’re going to evaluate that plan, adjust it, provide technical assistance to make sure at the end of the day we hit the goal.”
New Mexico, like every other state, is guaranteed by the federal government $100 million to pursue this effort, and additional monies are available based on proposals submitted from planning committees around the state.
A daunting task ahead
But even with this unprecedented amount of money available from the federal government, as well as the political will to provide universal broadband internet access to New Mexicans, rural areas still face many hurdles. Among them is the daunting task of reaching homes spread out across wide distances — far from communication towers, a situation that describes much of southern New Mexico. Also, experts say, projects to boost high-speed access must meet a critical requirement to get any federal funding: The broadband signal must somehow originate from a fiber-optic internet line, which is the fastest signal available.
But because many rural communities lack that fiber backbone, they may be eliminated from consideration for federal dollars, forcing residents in these places to remain offline or rely on less stable technologies, often satellite internet, which is typically the most expensive of options.
Bryan Simpson, principal of the Early College High School in Deming, has seen firsthand the struggles low-income families face as they’re forced to decide between paying utilities or footing the bill for a month’s worth of satellite for their children’s studies. They end up with sporadic internet.
“I have students who often have intermittent access because this is a low socio-economic environment, so when a family has problems paying bills, the internet is sacrificed first,” he said. “Students often have a month (with access), then another month with no access.”
Experts agree that, without consistent access to the internet, students lag behind their digitally connected peers academically.
“Students without broadband access or only a cell phone have lower rates of homework completion, lower grade point averages … even lower college completion rates,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a September report by the U.S. Department of Education.
New Mexico is a difficult state for universal broadband internet because its geography — such as mountain ranges, arroyos, forests and orchards — often makes installing fiber-optic lines difficult. Such obstacles also impede the path of a different technology — wireless internet radio signals. There are bureaucratic challenges, too. The permitting process for access to land for internet infrastructure can involve complicated negotiations among multiple entities, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the USDA Forest Service, ranchers, private landowners, companies, and a variety of county, state and municipal utility providers.
The problem, according to broadband experts, is how to connect the array of internet technologies — each with varying quality in the rural areas — with the ideal standard for stable high-speed internet: fiber-optic technology. Clearing the geographical and permitting hurdles to install fiber cable takes time, and it’s expensive.
Currently, there are seven top technologies being used to deliver internet in the state:
Fiber-optic internet: This internet is delivered via thin fiber-optic strands of glass or plastic that carry data through electronic pulses of light into a business or home. Experts say fiber-optic cable is the fastest, highest-quality internet available. But it is only accessible to people whose homes and businesses are connected to the fiber-optic grid, which is typically buried beneath ground in urban areas. Its super-fast speeds, which can range up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) or even higher, far exceed cable-based internet and another technology known as DSL.
Cable internet: This internet connection is not as fast or reliable as fiber-optic, but it is more widely accessible. It’s often bundled with phone and TV service. It uses coaxial cable connections — the same as cable TV — so its speed is normally acceptable for most internet uses, including video streaming. It is, however, susceptible to network congestion and can slow down during high-usage times. Transmission speeds are typically much faster than DSL. In central Las Cruces, a mid-level, bundled internet/TV cable plan offers download speeds of 530 millions of bits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of about 25 Mbps, both of which are considered fast.
Mobile internet: This internet connection is provided by a cell phone carrier such as AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon. Cell phone towers send an internet signal in all directions, and the signal is picked up by cell phones and portable, wireless hot spot devices within range. This signal can be effective in areas with strong cell phone infrastructure, but it weakens the farther a device is from the emitting tower. In Las Cruces, better equipped with cell phone infrastructure than most rural areas, a sample Verizon subscription is achieving moderately fast download speeds of about 35 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps.
Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) internet: This connection is run through the traditional copper phone lines and is used primarily in areas with no access to cable or fiber internet. It is typically slower than cable internet, and its speed is affected by the distance between the connection and the telephone company facility. Download speeds range from several hundred kilobits per second (Kbps), considered very slow in today’s era, to 100 Mbps, which is an acceptable high-speed option. Upload speeds are on the order of a relatively slow 3 Mbps.
Satellite internet: With a satellite internet connection, the signal is received through a rooftop dish that is picking up transmissions from radio-equipped satellites orbiting the Earth. This technology is often used in rural areas because there is no need for ground cables, cell towers or other antenna connections, but the signal strength is affected greatly by weather and physical obstructions. It is also typically the most expensive internet connection type. Download speeds can range from 500 Kbps to 25 Mbps, and upload speeds can range from about 80 Kbps to 3 Mbps. Both download and upload speeds are on the slower end of options.
Wireless internet: This technology carries the internet signal through radio waves and can be either mobile — cast broadly across a region — or “fixed,” which is a direct point-to-point connection. It is similar to a satellite connection, but, instead of using a rooftop dish that’s communicating with a satellite, a radio receiver in a person’s home picks up an internet connection from a nearby broadcasting antenna. A clear line of view is required between the receiver and the radio antenna. Weather can also affect the signal strength and stability. Often used in rural areas, its speed is comparable to DSL and cable, but it is plagued with connectivity issues for distant rural locations.
Broadband over Powerline (BPL) internet: Considered an experimental technology, BPL is designed to pull in a high-speed internet signal from standard electrical outlets. BPL internet portals are plugged into any active electrical socket equipped with its special internet signal, and no other wiring is needed. Electric companies were using this technology in rural areas, but in 2009, the federal government provided grants for fiber-optic infrastructure, so BPL was largely abandoned in the United States. Its speed is comparable to DSL and cable modem speeds.
Albert Vallejo, who lives in the southern Doña Ana County community of La Mesa, said his family is accessing the internet through a phone-line-based provider — much slower than the cable options in nearby cities like El Paso and Las Cruces. He tried a satellite service in the past, but it was “nothing great” and it slowed down drastically once the data-use limit was reached each month. Hot spots and cell phones, which use cell towers, offer weak signals in his area. Still, he considers the low-speed internet a tradeoff for the peacefulness that comes from living in a rural area. His family works around the limited bandwidth by taking turns.
“You learn how to do it,” he said. “If you want to watch a movie in high-def, you tell the kids: ‘Hey, get off the internet!’”
Vallejo in the past had to send some large data files for work, so he uploaded them in multiple batches, which took a long time. He once tried to persuade AT&T to attach a cell-tower-quality transmitter to a big pine tree in his yard. That would improve cell phone internet for the whole neighborhood. Unfortunately, the company didn’t take him up on the offer.
“My tree wasn’t good enough for them,” he said with a laugh.
Exploring hybrid models
Hybrid models — fusing wireless technologies with an existing fiber-optic system, for example — are also being explored by some partnerships to connect rural areas to reliable internet.
One such model is on the cusp of being constructed in the southernmost part of New Mexico through a partnership with the Gadsden Independent School District and an internet company, Chaparral Wireless.
Pablo Rojo, director of business development for Chaparral Wireless, described the hybrid model as using existing fiber-optic wiring available at the school district’s communication towers to carry a high-speed signal, adding strong radio transmitters to these towers, and then broadcasting the signal from the towers to homes in the area that are equipped with a receiver.
“You get the advantages of the wireless on the pricing side, meaning it costs a lot less to deploy a radio signal to a home than it is to dig up the street and lay fiber, so you get a nice balance,” he said. “Since we are using carrier-grade radios, we mitigate a lot of those bad things that wireless is famous for.”
Carrier-grade radios, Rojo said, are considered the communication industry’s most reliable conveyors of radio signals.
New Mexico is lagging in its internet connectivity, according to Broadband Now, a research company that crunches data from the FCC and more than 2,000 Internet Service Providers across the nation.
According to its data, New Mexico currently ranks 39th in the United States for internet coverage, speed and availability.
The data also show that:
- More than 250,000 people in the state are unable to access wired or fixed broadband internet, which works out to about one in ten New Mexicans not able to purchase an internet plan with minimum broadband speed requirements.
- More than 1.6 million New Mexicans – about eight in ten residents – are not able to purchase low-cost broadband, a price of $60 per month or less.
- More than 1.6 million New Mexicans are unable to access fiber-optic service, which is the high-speed technology now considered the standard for quality work and educational purposes.
Experts say progress is possible
The goal of universal connectivity in New Mexico may be a challenge, considering its obstacles, but local experts say it is possible.
“The use of multiple technologies, creative thinking, and partnerships is the solution,” said Kitty Clemens, chief strategy officer for the digital equity firm Destination Strategies and a broadband deployment consultant for the Luna County Economic Development office.
She said a critical component to fix the state’s limited broadband infrastructure in rural areas is to update the government on the true status of everyone’s connectivity.
“In the past, internet service providers were able to basically claim an entire census block as ‘served’ without anybody fact-checking them,” she said, adding that the federal government is less likely to send broadband funds to an area that the FCC — having received unverified ISP information — may believe already has affordable, high-speed internet.
“They don’t want an area to be overbuilt” with high-speed options, she said.
Clemens encouraged New Mexicans to report their actual internet speed to the FCC. That can be done by visiting the agency’s website: www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/fcc-speed-test-app-tip-sheet.
With an accurate understanding of New Mexico’s internet gaps, the state will be in a better position to bring money in for the digitally “unserved” and the “underserved” communities.
How slow is too slow?
The unconnected or “unserved” population is anyone with no internet — or anyone whose internet download speed is less than 25 Mbps and upload speed is less than 3 Mbps, Clemens said. The “underserved” population is anyone whose internet download speed is less than 100 Mbps and upload speed is less than 20 Mbps.
“With the passage of (Pres. Biden’s) Infrastructure bill, those private entities that will receive subsidies in the way of grants have to demonstrate that they will be building a system that gives consumers 100 (Mbps)” upload speed, Clemens said.
The ReConnect Program, one of two programs of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that focus on rural areas, requires “sufficient broadband access” of “speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload.” However, many of the funding awards under the program compel recipients’ projects to achieve an upload speed of 100 Mbps — much faster the otherwise stated minimum. For many rural areas, these speeds would be incredibly speedier than what they now have.
The other rural program, the Rural Broadband Program, defines sufficient broadband access as being 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, which follows the FCC’s current definition of broadband speed, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Sam Snody, director of technology for the Gadsden Independent School District, was successful in securing a $27 million grant from American Rescue Plan monies and is looking forward to implementing a fiber-wireless hybrid model that meets federal internet speed requirements for his district. This will potentially enable affordable, high-speed access for 50,000 to 60,000 people in the southernmost part of the state.
He said he appreciates the federal money that allowed him to find an innovative, hybrid solution for broadband internet, but he’s still cautious about the project.
“When it’s all done, I will have time to sit back and appreciate it. But right now, I have to keep the momentum going forward to make sure it gets finished,” he said. “I’m not going to take the time to be proud of it just yet until we complete the project.”
According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency that advises the U.S. president on telecommunications and information policy issues, the terms “broadband” and “high-speed internet” are “mostly interchangeable when the internet speeds are at the FCC standards, or higher,” according to an agency report.
But the report does distinguish that “broadband” internet refers specifically to a wide bandwidth that can “transport multiple signals over a ‘broad’ range of frequencies and support different internet traffic types.” But high-speed internet, the report states, is a “generic term used for internet service that is faster than the average.”
Reyes Mata III is a freelance journalist working with the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of local news organizations covering topics of importance to residents in the southern half of the state. The Collaborative’s current focus is COVID-19 recovery. Collaborative Editor Diana Alba Soular contributed to this article.