In many ways, Rio Rancho is leading the way on broadband, but the state still has a long way to go in providing access.
“When you look at the options that Rio Rancho has, I think we have more options for connectivity than anywhere else in the state,” Mayor Gregg Hull said during a recent presentation on broadband hosted by the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce. “So we’re very a very fortunate community that we looked at these infrastructure needs very early on.”
“One of the things that I’ve worked on throughout my three terms as mayor is connectivity, whether that’s infrastructure with the roads, bringing the community together … all of that connectivity that brings the community together. It can’t be as seamless as you need it to be without great broadband, without great internet access,” Hull added.
And while there’s plenty of options either in the community or coming to the community, it’s not the case throughout the state, said Drew Lovelace, acting director of Connect New Mexico, an organization with the mission of achieving affordable broadband solutions for New Mexicans. “”Whether you’re in government, whether you’re in the private sector, every part of our lives seems to have a touching point to broadband,” he said. “If we want to make sure New Mexico does not get left behind, we need to make sure we have high-speed broadband to every part of the state.”
However, there are challenges. There is a large percentage of unserved and underserved areas in the state. “We have 24 high-cost areas across the state. I think only Alaska has more,” Lovelace said. “That is the challenge that we face. We have 70,000 locations across [the state] that are unserved that we have to get to.”
“The ironic thing is, we have 2 million people in the state, and we’re the fifth-largest state in land mass,” said Jerry Schalow, president and CEO of the chamber. “That is a whole lot of cable that has to be rolled out.”
It’s not just a challenge of getting to all the locations, either. Funding is an issue as well. While Lovelace said his organization has pulled in about $780 million in federal funding and $170 million in state funding, “we’re looking at a a $2.1 billion gap,” he said, saying this will not only be a multi-year, but a multi-decade project.
Lovelace said he’s asking for $250 million in the next legislative session to rebuild the Connect New Mexico fund. “We’re just going to chip away at it because $2.1 billion is about one-fifth of the entire state’s budget. We’re going to chip away year after year,” he said.
The Inflation Reduction Act is also bringing money to the state, he said, calling it a “generational investment.” However, that presents additional challenges in manpower. With all 50 states and six territories getting funds at the same time, it will be hard to import workers. “In the past, we might have a project and we can borrow a crew from Texas or Colorado if we didn’t have the skill here. We’re not going to have that opportunity because it’s all happening at the same time,” he said.
“But we also have a major supply chain issue of our own on talent for things like surveyors and drafters,” Lovelace added. “These are regulated, licensed positions that require years of training.
“This is going to be everybody on board,” he said. “If we don’t do this, we don’t figure it out, we’re going to miss the boat on this and the business opportunities are going to be still in Texas or Colorado. This is the time to leverage it.”
“We raise some of the smartest kids in the world right here in New Mexico, and then we export them because the opportunities aren’t here,” Hull said. “I do appreciate that the focus is going to be on the unserved communities throughout New Mexico because as you bring more service throughout the state, we will start importing more professions, and we can reverse the tide and the flow of all of the exporting of talent.”
However, he’s also looking at the opportunity at the local level and bringing Rio Rancho to a smart city status. “Optimizing all these things from a smart city standpoint is going to require faster and faster speeds and more and more demand on a system,” he said.
“In order to keep up with the citizen demand and the consumer demand, we have to keep up with the technology today,” Hull added. “So I’m very proud of the steps that are being taken in Rio Rancho to make sure that we are the most technologically advanced city that we can possibly be.”
“Internet is no longer a luxury,” Schalow said. “It’s a necessity for economic growth in our region.”