LAS CRUCES A federal program launched during the pandemic helps low-income families pay the monthly cost of the Internet, sometimes covering the entire bill. But many people in southern New Mexico are unaware of the program or have had trouble enrolling.
On Thursday, July 6, local Internet access advocates formally announced a $300,000 funding award to raise awareness and help people enroll in the home Internet subsidy, known as the Affordable Connectivity Program. The ACP pays families up to $30 a month (or $75 for tribal members) for internet.
Supporters say the new funding will help residents in rural, mostly Hispanic border communities known as settlements, as well as some people in cities like Las Cruces who are negatively impacted by a national digital divide. Daisy Maldonado, executive director of Empowerment Congress, noted that there are 37 settlements in Doa Ana County that need access or better access. Broadband is a vital public infrastructure needed for daily life, she said.
This hasn’t just been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders here in New Mexico, it’s been highlighted exponentially, he said during a press conference at the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico headquarters in Las Cruces. The children now had to do home schooling. The parents had to work from home, which was nearly impossible because, again, they didn’t have broadband internet.
Access remains a challenge
In fact, many families in rural and semi-rural southern New Mexico have little or no options to connect to high-speed Internet. Just 10 miles south of Las Cruces, Mesquite residents struggle to work from home or school due to a lack of high-speed services. In more urban contexts there are better infrastructures, but many times families cannot afford season tickets.
The just-announced money from the Federal Communications Commission will go to a group called Borderplex Connect, advocates for high-speed Internet access working in far-flung West Texas and southern New Mexico. Such groups are expected to play crucial roles in identifying needs, securing grants, and making progress toward solving connectivity gaps across the nation. Borderplex Connect is organized under the El Paso Community Foundation, which will administer the new grant in partnership with the coalition. Eric Pearson, president and CEO of the El Paso Community Foundation, said the coalition found that the percentage of residents without adequate Internet access is far greater than recorded in FCC data. When we talk about broadband access and devices and the ability to use those devices, we know it’s a big part of what it means to be a part of the community to access health care, to education, to access the banking system, to be placed in community bulletin boards, he said at a press conference.
The new funding will specifically go to work in Doa Ana and Luna counties to raise awareness of the Accessible Connectivity program and directly help people enroll. The Southern New Mexico News Collaboration previously reported that residents face a variety of barriers to enrollment, ranging from lack of benefit awareness to language barriers to logistical hurdles. Compared to other US states, New Mexico has shown higher enrollment on the subsidy. Even so, more than half of eligible households still do not participate.
Increasing “boots on the ground”
Terra Winter, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico, said the funding will also help support broadband coalition meetings in communities and hire more staff, such as through the Empowerment Congress, to help residents to register for the subsidy.
It will employ other people in those programs because they already have boots on the ground, said Winter, who sits on the coalition board. So, it’s a way of trying to increase their capacity.
Recently, the federal government announced a $675 million pool to upgrade the high-speed Internet infrastructure in New Mexico. Another pool of funding is expected to be allocated for digital equity which helps people get internet devices and services, as well as learn the skills to use broadband in their lives. concept in helping residents connect to the internet, and this could open the door for additional funding for Borderplex Connect and smaller non-profits such as Empowerment Congress.
Christie Ann Harvey, executive director of the nonprofit Greater Luna County Economic Opportunity Council, said some 8,500 residents living in unincorporated areas of Luna County are in desperate need of broadband access.
These people can’t get educational opportunities, he said. They can’t work from home. Healthcare is limiting for them. They are very deprived of their ability to make a living. Our poverty rate in Luna County is about double the national average.
In 2020, about 24 percent of Luna County residents were in poverty, compared to about 11 percent nationwide, according to US Census Bureau numbers.
Representatives from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, whose jurisdiction includes southern New Mexico, helped local broadband advocates identify grant opportunities.
Looking for a permanent change
A Doa Ana County Broadband Coalition that was a foundation for Borderplex Connect conducted an internet access survey of 5,000 residents in 2020 with the help of Empowerment Congress community health workers known as initiators. The study identified significant needs among residents. Among respondents without the internet, 75 percent identified as Hispanic and most reported household incomes of less than $21,000, according to BorderplexConnect.org.
What they heard at the gates varied, Maldonado said. People said: I can’t afford it, even if I wanted to. Some people have said: If I had it, I wouldn’t know where to start. Some people said, well, there isn’t a service near me where I can get internet service.
Most Internet services are provided by private companies and the cost of subscriptions can be a barrier for residents.
Winter said the recent funding award also allows us to have more difficult conversations.
In Luna County, they’ve talked about owning a public service, he said. We brought this up to Borderplex Connect due to the cost of private companies. So, it lets us have those stock conversations, if it’s a private company coming up.
Borderplex Connect is applying for a different pool of funding for similar jobs in El Paso County, Winter said.
Pearson said the recent grant is just the tip of the iceberg. This grant will help us bridge what needs to be permanent change for our community, he said.
Maldonado said the long-term goal isn’t to provide a temporary broadband patch in communities, but to create permanent and equitable high-speed access.
To enroll in the Accessible Connectivity program, visit https://getinternet.gov/apply.
Diana Alba Soular is project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions reporting lens. For more information, visit SouthNMnews.org or SurNMnoticias.org. As a disclosure, the Empowerment Congress mentioned in this article is a participant in SNMJC.
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