Lawmakers wonder if state school Internet will work in rural areas – The Journal

State officials aim to have the same broadband connection for all NM schools by 2027

The state’s education network aims to give New Mexico schools access to a statewide Internet server by 2027. (Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

State lawmakers have expressed notorious skepticism during recent updates on New Mexico’s broadband Internet investments.

Public education and state broadband officials have set a goal of giving hundreds of schools — totaling nearly 400,000 students — in New Mexico the ability to hop on an Internet server that reaches across the state by 2027.

But some lawmakers representing areas where Internet access and reliability have historically been uneven across New Mexico have expressed concerns about whether the state can keep up with demand.

“For years, we’ve had connectivity issues across the state,” said Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert (R-Corrales). Powdrell-Culbert, who lost her seat to Democrat Kathleen Cates in November, went on to say that this kind of work to get stable internet access across the state is important and needs to be done hand in hand with local providers. .

The pandemic has exacerbated the need for Internet access in New Mexico public schools. Local school districts and state officials have spent millions in federal pandemic aid to build technology systems to deliver hardware such as tablets or laptops to every student, and have invested in setting up networks to connect those students to the Internet.

To further enhance the state’s Internet infrastructure, the governor signed a bill last year requiring this educational network to be installed statewide.

Ovidiu Viorica is the Broadband and Technology Manager at the NM Public Schools Facilities Authority. He has spoken to several interim state legislative committees over the past month on the Net. Design started in April 2021 and final work started last month.

“We all know that whenever the internet is not available, the educational process simply cannot happen,” Viorica said.

Viorica said all but four of the NM public schools — Tse Yi’ Gai High School in Pueblo Pintada, Lybrook Elementary in Jemez Mountain and San Antonio, and Midway Elementary in Socorro — have high-speed Internet connections. Those four unrelated schools are expected to be by July 2023, she said.

Connection points, called nodes, will initially be set up in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Gallup, Farmington, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, and broadband will travel via major routes between these points, connecting to schools along the way. Additional nodes will be established in more cities later, most of them at higher education facilities such as the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State University.

Approximately $10 million in state and federal funding will be dedicated to this project each year for the next five years, adding up to $50 million to complete everything by 2027.

While the primary goal is to provide good internet connectivity to all New Mexico schools, Viorica said there will be other benefits as well, such as sharing educational resources and boosting cybersecurity.

He said it will be easier to fend off digital attacks on schools by securing a large Internet stream than all smaller, individual Internet networks, although the work will still have to be done locally and schools will likely need more funding to do that. .

Viorica said making this work is not an easy task. Not many specific details were provided at any of the legislative meetings, and few lawmakers asked challenging or specific questions about the job.

“It’s a pretty tedious effort to go through the steps to establish that,” he said.

Will it work?

Viorica spoke to the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee on November 17 about Internet improvement projects. But not all lawmakers were convinced it would be foolproof.

One MP, Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R-Lovington), said he doesn’t see how broadband partnership will work for all schools overall. He said he’s concerned that the technical details about rural capacity and existing server-based connectivity haven’t really been worked out.

“All summer, I’ve been looking at your maps that don’t match the existing rural network,” he said.

Viorica reassured the legislator that the maps were conceptual and do not represent an exact route of circuits.

Representative Susan Herrera (D-Embudo) was not surprised that Rio Arriba County schools were not on the state’s list for consideration for the new network. Viorica said school districts with Internet service provider agreements cannot join the state’s network until those agreements are terminated.

He said most schools in the Herrera district are already on a regional network called the North Central Consortium, something put in place as a precursor to the statewide full server. Once such contracts expire, he said, those other schools can apply to join this statewide network.

But even just applying might be difficult for some smaller counties. Herrera said there is a lot of turnover in education, making it difficult to complete these types of applications.

“It’s very difficult from a rural point of view,” he said.

Viorica admitted that although the state is trying to help with technical assistance in applying for the broadband process, “it’s a work in progress” and is especially difficult for smaller local entities.

“The Office of Broadband is really working hard to put some technical assistance resources in place that (will help),” he said. “It’s not helping today, but it will probably help in the next few years.”

The State Broadband Office was established in 2021 with funding to hire six full-time employees. Dianne Lindstrom, deputy director of the state broadband office, said this statewide network could be established even more quickly if the legislature increases staffing resources when the session begins next year.

Pettigrew also expressed concern that this large network would leave local Internet providers out of the mix as they try to compete with state and federal funding.

“Our cooperatives are built and spend decades of time and effort to achieve this,” he said. “And if we turn around and build a network where co-ops are shut out of the picture, it won’t look like good news on national news. And I’ll make sure it gets there.

But Viorica said the plan is to build on existing services, working with local providers to do so. He said it will be the most convenient way to set up this internet connection and those providers are best placed to provide services.

“We want to work with them because they are local. I’m there,” she said. “They’ll make sure the network is working properly.”

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