New Mexico Must Invest Now To Bridge The Digital Divide

By LIDDIE MARTINEZ
Economic Relief Subcommittee Chair
New Mexico Economic Recovery Council

Amid all the loss and sacrifice of the past year, we have all had to adjust to new ways of doing things.

Forced by the pandemic to remain apart physically, we have struggled to connect with each other through technology. In too many cases, we found our Internet service incapable of delivering the bandwidth needed for an entire family to function in a virtual environment.

The shortcomings became evident early on – business video conferences were dropped, medical services became inaccessible, and children scrambled to find parking spaces near public hot spots to keep up with their schoolwork.

And even so, those with any level of service are the lucky ones. Much of New Mexico has no reliable broadband access at all. An estimated 13 to 20 percent of New Mexico homes and businesses do not have broadband service. The problem is especially acute in rural and low-income areas.

The New Mexico Economic Recovery Council is asking the Legislature to take bold action toward a remedy: earmark $200 million of the state’s Severance Tax bonding capacity this year for broadband projects. This could be used to leverage many millions more in federal grants to bring New Mexico more fully into the Internet Age.

Even at that level of funding, we’d likely be short of the estimated $1 billion that it would take to get all of New Mexico adequately connected. Still, it would certainly get us a good distance down the road.

This is an investment we must make to be competitive in the new economy and to attract the kinds of jobs New Mexicans need and deserve.

It is also a matter of equity. We know the digital divide worsens the inequities evident in our state. Businesses have closed their doors, unable to transition from traditional business models to online sales. Without regular digital access, students in already challenging situations fell further behind. Reliable internet service is critical to providing health care in the many underserved areas of rural New Mexico.

Who could have imagined this in 21st Century America? We must act now to correct the harsh realities that this pandemic has forced us to acknowledge. Reliable Internet service is no longer a luxury. It’s as necessary as running water and electricity.

But many sparsely populated areas currently don’t have broadband because the economics do not support the return on investment for any one entity to build out the infrastructure. It will take state and federal funds to bring New Mexico fully into the digital age.

There is no doubt that we can afford to do this. Too often, capital outlay allocations are made based on political factors as opposed to prioritized needs. Projects chosen often are not shovel ready or adequately funded, making it difficult to even start, let alone complete them. Meanwhile, larger projects with meaningful impact go unfunded.

At a time when such a great divide exists in our society, let’s take up the work that will touch every life in our state and improve our connections to one another. Call your legislator and advocate for the effective use of our capital outlay dollars.

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