Spools of fiber-optic cable are becoming a more common sight across the state since the federal government has begun funding Internet projects. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? Maybe not, if you listen to naysayers.
In April, the US Department of Agriculture announced that New Mexico would receive $40 million for three rural broadband projects, courtesy of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. That brings the total to 18 projects worth more than $200 million.
For people in remote places with slow or no internet service, it means they can enjoy all the services and conveniences that people in cities take for granted.
This funding round sends $23.8 million to Western New Mexico Telephone Co. to build a fiber-optic network that will provide high-speed Internet access to 206 people, five businesses and five farms in Catron County.
The Peasco Valley telephone cooperative will receive $13.9 million for 550 people, 11 businesses and 48 farms in Chaves, Eddy, Otero and Lincoln counties, according to the USDA news release.
And the ENMR telephone cooperative will receive $2.6 million for a farm and 27 people in De Baca, Guadalupe, Harding, Quay, San Miguel, Socorro and Union counties.
All three utilities will make the service accessible to customers by participating in Affordable Connectivity Programs (ACPs). A program from the Federal Communications Commission, ACP, subsidizes the cost of the Internet up to $30 a month, so that the service is either free or inexpensive.
New Mexico has an ACP enrollment rate of 38% of eligible households, which ranks us 7th in the nation, according to the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative. And the state’s Office of Broadband Access and Expansion is working to boost enrollment.
Some letter writers were eager to spend $40 million to get the cable to 783 people, 16 businesses and 54 farms. They had done the math, they said, and it didn’t make sense.
One critic argued that the government was spending many thousands per customer when, for the same price, they could get years of service from HughesNet Satellite or Starlink. He then points out that HughesNet costs $149 a month for a service he describes as a bit slow, plus the user has to install a router, while Starlink costs $700 the first month and $110 a month thereafter.
So let’s say the government paid for the satellite service. We were talking about years. Fiber optic is there forever, like your power line.
Kelly Schlegel, director of the state’s Office of Broadband Access and Expansion, responded in an op-ed that it’s easy to voice your opinion from the comfort of the city, but we’re talking about real people facing real consequences when their internet connection is not working.
Many less expensive alternatives that critics suggest our rural neighbors should accept without complaint simply aren’t viable options for reliable Internet under all circumstances, he writes.
Fiber-optic is the fastest and most reliable technology over time compared to alternatives, said Schlegel, who has spent 40 years in the technology industry. And utility partners have skin in the game. They must match 25% of the federal grant. It’s a lot for small vendors, but then they have an interest in making it work.
A little internet research reveals that many Starlink customers swear by it, but the customer service and communications with the company are appalling. In many rural areas, it’s simply not available. It’s expensive, and the company raised its rates twice in its first two years of business.
HughesNet Satellite Internet also provides fast Internet in rural areas, although it is unavailable in some areas and limits the amount of data that can be used each month. It may also be subject to service disruptions.
Perhaps in the future rural customers will be able to choose suppliers, but at the moment they have nothing. These projects have the best chance of hooking them up soon with reliable and affordable service.
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