New Mexico is among the states with the lowest connectivity to broadband in the country, ranking 48th according to U.S. Census Data. Changes to those figures are coming, however, thanks to efforts of companies in our own backyard and the oil and gas driven budget surplus, which is making extensions of critical broadband infrastructure possible. These efforts could continue to spark economic growth by providing coverage for families and businesses throughout the state, particularly in underserved rural areas.
The U.S. Census estimates that only 74% of New Mexican households are connected to broadband services, while the national average is 81%. A study conducted by Microsoft, however, estimates that roughly 163 million Americans do not use the internet at broadband speeds – which is 6.5 times higher than federal data suggests. Experts presenting the report concluded that parts of rural America are “rich in natural beauty but internet-poor.”
Keeping up with modern technology and reducing the gap in internet access and connectivity is a critical to continuing New Mexico’s recent economic progress. As part of their Rural Airband Initiative, Microsoft is partnering with Sacred Wind Communications, a telecommunications company based in New Mexico, to attack the digital divide head-on. In all, Microsoft’s initiative is aiming to extend broadband access to 3 million Americans in rural areas by July 2022.
The Albuquerque Journal reports:
Sacred Wind will install Microsoft technology to tap into “TV white spaces,” or unused UHF and VHF broadcast spectrum, to potentially provide high-speed internet for the first time to up to 40,000 rural households over the next eight years, Sacred Wind CEO John Badal told the Journal.
“This technology allows us to leap frog over older technologies to get broadband to more rural areas,” Badal said. “Microsoft’s equipment costs about the same as other technologies widely used today, but it has much farther reach. The radio waves travel longer distances, and they can go through thick foliage, penetrate walls and roll over hills.”
“The broadband gap is hindering tribal and rural communities from reaping the social and economic benefits that come with access to the internet,” said Shelley McKinley, Microsoft general manager of technology and corporate responsibility, in a prepared statement. “Our partnership with Sacred Wind Communications will bring reliable, high-speed internet to underserved communities in New Mexico so that they can access the same opportunities as their urban counterparts.”
“The Microsoft Airband project is good news for rural America and our partnership with such a leader in technology is good news for New Mexico,” Badal also said.
The TV white spaces technology will first be deployed later this summer in Grants, Milan, San Rafael, Yatahey and areas located in the Church Rock Chapter. This joint effort between Microsoft and Sacred Wind Communications could have reverberating effects on these communities – and ultimately the state.
That’s because improving connectivity in rural American could lead to enormous economic benefits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says:
Rural broadband has become a national priority to address the e-connectivity gap and deliver increased economic and societal benefits. The American economy stands to capture substantial gains from e-connectivity through adoption of Next Generation Precision Agriculture. USDA’s analysis estimates that connected technologies are poised to transform agricultural production and create a potential $47-$65 billion in annual gross benefit for the United States.
If Internet infrastructure, digital technologies at scale, and on-farm capabilities become available at a level that met estimated producer demand, the U.S. agriculture industry would realize benefits equivalent to nearly 18 percent of total production, based on 2017 levels.
New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau also advocates for greater broadband access in our state’s rural areas and according to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, “Broadband in rural America will be as transformative in the 21st century as rural electrification was in the last century.”
Luckily, it appears increasing broadband access for rural New Mexico has widespread support in our state.
Prior to the start of the 2019 legislative session, James Jiminez, executive director of NM Voices for Children, recognized that the billion dollar surplus generated by oil and gas development could help with broadband deployment – saying, “There is a great opportunity with the state surplus to use those resources to invest in broadband infrastructure for rural communities.”
Through the capital outlay process, which is funded through severance taxes from oil, gas, and minerals, legislators allocated funding for e-connectivity projects including $10 million for statewide rural broadband infrastructure development, $1.3 million fiber optic extension for Jemez Pueblo, and $260,000 for rural broadband services in northern New Mexico. And more projects could be funded soon.
Following the announcement of the massive budget surplus projections to be even higher than expected, Representative James Townsend of Artesia stated, “We should use this money to invest in New Mexico. Projects like road improvements and rural broadband will have a multiplier effect on our economy and should be prioritized.”
Extending broadband into the rural areas of New Mexico will spur economic development, increase productivity, and improve quality of life. The recent surge in oil and gas development is providing our state with the resources to make this critical infrastructure investment possible, while partnerships like that between Microsoft and Sacred Wind Communications are helping to deploy new technologies to close the broadband gap.
With smart and targeted investments from the state and continued innovation of companies like Microsoft, rural broadband could help New Mexico continue our recent string of good economic news.