NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – It’s much harder for students to succeed in school without internet access — a fact that thousands of New Mexico students learned with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, New Mexico agencies mapped out the addresses of nearly 50,000 students who weren’t able to participate in online learning due to a lack of internet access. Now, the state is working to bring internet to over 40,000 of those homes.
Last year, a New Mexico judge ordered the state’s public education department to get internet access to at-risk students across nearly two dozen school districts. The order was part of the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, where the court found that the state has been failing to provide sufficient education and protection for at-risk New Mexico students.
In response to the order, the Public Education Department (PED), working with businesses and other government agencies, has been on a mission to connect New Mexico’s students. Recent mapping efforts have identified 49,376 residences of students that lack sufficient internet.
KRQE News 13’s analysis of federal data reveals that while all of Albuquerque has access to an average advertised speed of at least 25Mbps, internet accessibility drops dramatically outside of metropolitan areas. Currently, around 10% of New Mexicans live in areas where the minimum speeds are not available, according to the White House. KRQE News 13’s analysis shows that much of the western portion of the state has limited access.
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Central and southern New Mexico’s cities have widespread broadband coverage that meets the FCC minimum speed (pink), according to provider data. But much of the rest of the state has poorer coverage. Outside of pink regions, there may be providers offering speeds greater than 25Mbps, but the average advertised speed across all providers is below the FCC minimum. Data from providers, reported to FCC via Form 477 and NMRGIS. (Visual created by Curtis Segarra for KRQE.com)
“This is nothing new but since the pandemic happened, it really brought to light how deep the situation was,” Erica Surova, the director for the Center for Community Analysis at New Mexico State University, told KRQE News 13 in an interview last year. Her team has looked at the so-called “digital divide” that existed even before the pandemic highlighted connectivity problems. “Prior to the pandemic, one out of every four students — one out of every four households in New Mexico — didn’t have an internet subscription,” she said.
To tackle the issue, the Public Education Department, the Department of Information Technology, and the Public Schools Facilities Authority banded together to figure out how to boost access across New Mexico. And their solution: Use all the tools available to get kids online.
They’ve already laid more than 844 miles of fiber-optic cables and deployed 6,000 WiFi hotspots, according to the PED. For homes in more remote areas, they’ve also provided hundreds of satellite internet connections.
“Connectivity efforts are ongoing,” Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said in a press release Monday . “With our partners, we’ve deployed every viable option to close the digital divide that kept too many New Mexico students from accessing learning during the global pandemic. This work isn’t finished, but it’s amazing what’s been accomplished by the efforts of so many working together to reach such an urgent and important goal.”
And the department expects federal funds to help fill remaining gaps. Schools across the state have applied for tens of millions of federal dollars, according to PED. They expect that money to buy over 2,000 modems and routers as well as over 100,000 laptops and tablets.
The state, and New Mexico’s students, are still waiting on that federal funding. And there’s no set timeline for when it could arrive.
“That timing for the Federal compensation, through these applications, is out of our hands,” Judy Robinson, a spokesperson for the PED told KRQE News 13. “We hope that all the funding will be distributed sooner rather than later.”
Once it does arrive, the PED expects the state’s digital divide to shrink significantly. Once the expected federal funding is distributed, only 7,293 New Mexico students will still lack high-speed internet at home, PED estimates. That’s down from tens of thousands of students. And PED estimates that only 69 students will be left without both internet access and a device to connect to the web.
“We are down to the absolute hardest-to-reach homes and families, but we haven’t given up,” Steinhaus from PED said. “We are working with every New Mexico family to be sure every child has the 21st century tools they need for learning.”
The state’s efforts to bring New Mexico online parallels a similar federal effort. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — the group in charge of regulating internet providers — recently made “closing the digital divide” a top priority, according to a 2020 report.
“High-speed broadband and the digital opportunity it brings can be essential to innovation, economic opportunity, healthcare, and civic engagement in today’s modern society,” their report says. And that aligns with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which says that “access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States.”
Data shows, however, that it’s likely going to be a long time before all New Mexicans have stable, affordable, high-speed access, if ever. After all, having infrastructure doesn’t necessarily mean all New Mexicans will be able to use it.
Data from the FCC shows that even in urban centers, like Albuquerque, the number of homes with access to download speeds above 150 Megabits per second (Mbps) is relatively low. And of course, even if you live in an area where internet providers advertise high speed, there are sometimes outages or other issues.
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Average speeds vary across Albuquerque, with few areas seeing an average download speed above 150mbps. Data from FCC Form 477, as reported by internet providers and NMRGIS. (Visual created by Curtis Segarra for KRQE.com)
Since 2019, the FCC has received more than 400 complaints about internet speeds and access from New Mexicans, their complaint data shows. They’ve already received nearly 100 complaints in 2022, from Mescalero, New Mexico, to Taos, and dozens of cities in-between.