Lawmakers debate whether statewide school internet network will work in rural areas

Lawmakers debate whether statewide school internet network will work in rural areas

State officials aim to have the same broadband connection in place for all New Mexico schools by 2027

The statewide education network aims to give New Mexico schools the ability to access an internet server that covers the entire state by 2027. (Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

State lawmakers expressed familiar 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 — serving a total of nearly 400,000 students — in New Mexico the ability to hop on a server. Internet that reaches the entire state by 2027.

But some lawmakers representing areas where internet access and reliability have historically been spotty across New Mexico have expressed concern about the state’s ability to meet demand.

“For years, we’ve had connectivity issues statewide,” 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 in conjunction with providers. local.

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 like tablets or laptops to every student, and have invested in installing networks to connect these students to the Internet.

To further bolster the state’s internet infrastructure, the governor signed a bill last year that required the establishment of this statewide education network.

Ovidiu Viorica is Head of Broadband and Technology with NM Public Schools Facilities Authority. He has spoken to several interim state legislative committees over the past month from the network. Planning began in April 2021 and final work began last month.

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

Viorica said all but four public schools in NM — Tse Yi’ Gai High School in Pueblo Pintada, Lybrook Elementary in Jemez Mountain, and San Antonio and Midway Elementary Schools in Socorro — have high-speed internet connections. These four unconnected schools should be online by July 2023, he said.

Connection points, called nodes, will initially be installed in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Gallup, Farmington, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, and broadband will take major routes between these points, connecting to schools along the way. Additional nodes will be set up later in other cities, most of which will be at higher education institutions like the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State University.

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

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

He said it would be easier to repel digital attacks on schools by protecting a single large internet stream as opposed to all of the individual smaller internet networks – although work still needs to be done locally, and schools probably need more funding. to do this.

Viorica said all of this was not an easy task. Few specific details were given at either legislative meeting, and few lawmakers asked tough or specific questions about the job.

“It’s quite a 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 plans to improve the Internet. But not all lawmakers were convinced it would be foolproof.

One lawmaker, Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R-Lovington), said he doesn’t see how broadband collaboration for all schools will work overall. He said he was concerned that the technical details of rural capacity and connectivity based on existing servers weren’t really being worked out.

“All summer I looked at maps of you that didn’t fit into the existing rural network,” he says.

Viorica reassured the legislator that the maps were conceptual and did not represent an exact circuit path.

Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo) was not surprised that schools in Rio Arriba County weren’t on the state’s list to consider for the new network. Viorica said school districts with ISP contracts cannot join the statewide network until those agreements are completed.

He said most schools in the Herrera District are already on a regional network called the North Central Consortium, something set up as a precursor to the full statewide server. Once contracts like this are in place, he said, those other schools can apply to access that statewide network.

But even a simple application could be difficult for some small counties. Herrera said there was a lot of turnover in education, which made it difficult to make these kinds of applications.

“It’s very difficult from a rural point of view,” she says.

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

“The Office of Broadband is working really hard to put in place technical support resources that (will help),” he said. “It doesn’t help today, but it will probably help in the years to come.”

The state broadband office was established in 2021 with funding to staff six full-time staff. Dianne Lindstrom, deputy director of the state’s broadband office, said that statewide network could be built even faster if the legislature increases staffing resources when session begins next week. next year.

Pettigrew also expressed concern that this vast network would exclude local internet service providers 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 that excludes co-ops, it won’t look good on national news. And I’ll make sure he does.

But Viorica said the plan is to build on existing services, working with local providers to do so. He said this would be the most cost-effective way to set up this internet connection and that these providers are best placed to provide services.

“We want to work with them because they are local. They are there,” he said. “They’re going to make sure the network is working properly.”

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