County Council Considers High-speed Broadband

By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
kirsten@ladailypost.com

High-speed broadband service is under consideration in Los Alamos and, as the Council learned Tuesday night, now might be the best time to act.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Rep. Christine Chandler presented an overview of the 2021 legislative session and said that she, along with seven other women lawmakers, successfully sponsored a bill that focuses on broadband and ensuring it is cohesive across the state.  

New Mexico is ranked at the bottom of the states in terms of connectivity, Chandler said. This really became visible when COVID-19 hit and New Mexico students needed to connect to their schools remotely, she said.

House Bill 10 identifies one point of responsibility, planning and funding for broadband. It also created an office for broadband, Chandler said. Additionally, a council was created to work on projects across the state and to assist municipalities on broadband.

Chandler recommended Los Alamos County work with the newly formed broadband department. She added there also is federal assistance.

“There are federal monies available for this kind of stuff,” Chandler said.

What the County is considering doing is a needs analysis on broadband, Deputy County Manager Steve Lynne said.

No council action was requested Tuesday night, but Lynne said Council will define a budget option for broadband during the budget hearings April 19, 20, 26 and 27.

According to the staff report, this analysis would cover:

  • Supply – evaluate what level of service is currently available, identify the vendors, locate where in the community the service is offered and at what cost. Also, determine what additional capacity each vendor could provide, the timeframe and cost.
  • Demand – evaluate the desired level of service, determine customers’ current satisfaction level as well as what they are willing to pay and if they would switch providers to gain more service.

Once the results of these two analyses are known, a variety of options for a path forward would be presented. This potential budget option is estimated to cost $175,000.

There are a variety of things to consider, Council Chair Randall Ryti said.

“One issue does seem like a supply issue: Whether or not the infrastructure leading into Los Alamos is adequate or not given the demand and alternate demands we may have in the future,” he said. “We had some discussion of what alternate models might look like …”

Ryti noted that some of these models could include the County owning the infrastructure or forming partnerships.

Councilor Sara Scott said some money should be allowed to move forward with broadband. She added that there does seem to be a capacity and supply issue in Los Alamos and “I think finding out and getting a hard answer on that is important.”

Another question that needs answering, Scott said, is which service models are available that would be an improvement; in addition, where could the County develop economically if it had broadband capabilities.

As far as a demand analysis, Scott said it seems pretty clear what people desire – they want the best service for the best price.

“I think trenching up the County and laying down fiber is the only credible solution to our problem,” Councilor Sean Williams said.

The question is, does the County want to do that, he said.

Williams said there are two actions to take: update the cost estimate for trenching and installing fiber and determine what consumers can expect to save on their current Internet bills. Additionally, he said it needs to be determined what capacity gains can be expected and how does that balance with the cost of installing the fiber.

“In other words, we need a cost benefit analysis,” Williams said.

Councilor Denise Derkacs said she noticed that a lot of studies were done on broadband, the latest was in 2013. She wondered why the projects stopped.

Lynne said it was predominately sticker shot. At the time the cost was $60 million and it was decided that price was too expensive.

Derkacs said she felt now was the time to act.

“It’s probably time that the County made a decision to go forward,” she said; adding that, “it might just make sense to forge ahead and look into funding options … assuming everyone wants to go forward with something …”

Councilor David Reagor agreed. He said he felt a budget item for an analysis wasn’t necessary; rather he said there should be a request for proposals for broadband installation or the County could investigate doing the work internally.

“We don’t need any more information on the topic, we know exactly where to go unless you want to say the County stays out of it in which case we need to encourage wireless communications on a bigger scale,” Reagor said.

Other councilors felt there were still questions to be answered.

Councilor David Izraelevitz wondered whether the County should just provide the fiber or should it become the service provider. Also, how would this endeavor be funded, he asked.

Economic modeling is a substantial issue, Izraelevitz said. He also posed the question of whether employers, particularly the laboratory, would be interested in subsidizing employees’ Internet service.

“Whatever we do would most likely have to be economically competitive with what people have now …,” Izraelevitz said.

Council Vice Chair James Robinson said he saw investing in broadband as an investment in the County’s future.

“This represents an investment in our community … what you are looking at if fiber is the backbone for almost all technology including 5G, which is essentially just an algorithm for processing the information faster … fiber is the backbone for the 5G … investing in our fiber is probably an investment in our community that could bring us into the future of the nation because of the fact that it is going to become a need,” Robinson said.

As result, he said he would like to see an expedited time schedule for this project. He pointed out that life without Internet is no longer here.

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