Lawmakers question whether statewide school Internet network will work in rural areas – The Durango Herald

State officials aim to have the same broadband connection for all NM schools by 2027

The global education network aims to give schools in New Mexico access to a statewide Internet server by 2027. (Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

State lawmakers voiced familiar doubts during recent updates on New Mexico’s broadband investments.

Public education and state broadband officials have set a goal of giving hundreds of schools in New Mexico — serving a total of about 400,000 students — access to a statewide Internet server by 2027.

But some lawmakers in New Mexico, who represent areas where internet access and reliability have historically been uneven, have expressed concern that the state won’t be able to keep up with the demand.

“We’ve had connectivity issues around the state for years,” he said. Powdrell-Culbert, who lost her seat to Democrat Kathleen Cates in November, went on to say that this kind of work is essential to getting stable internet across the state and should be done hand-in-hand with local providers.

The pandemic has increased the need for Internet access in New Mexico public schools. Local school districts and state officials have spent millions in federal pandemic aid to build technology systems to give every student a device like a tablet or laptop, and invested in installing networks to connect those students to the Internet.

To further strengthen the state’s Internet infrastructure, the governor signed a bill last year calling for the construction of this statewide education network.

Ovidiu Viorica is the broadband and technology manager with the NM Public Schools Facilities Authority. He has spoken about the network to several interim state legislative committees in the past month. Planning began in April 2021 and final work began last month.

“We all know that the educational process simply cannot happen without the Internet,” Viorica said.

All but four NM public schools — Tse Yi’ Gai High School in Pueblo Pintada, Lybrook Elementary in Mount Jemez and San Antonio and Midway Elementary in Socorro — have high-speed Internet connections, Viorica said. Those four schools that aren’t closing are due by July 2023, he said.

Connection points, called hubs, will initially be established in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Gallup, Farmington, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, and broadband will travel along major routes between these points and connect to schools along the way. Additional hubs will later be established in more cities, most of which will be at institutions of higher learning such as the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State University.

The project will receive approximately $10 million in state and federal funding annually over the next five years, with an additional $50 million to build the entire project by 2027.

While the primary goal is to provide good internet for all New Mexico schools, Viorica said there will be other benefits, such as sharing educational resources and strengthening cybersecurity.

He said it would be easier for schools to prevent digital attacks by protecting one big internet stream, as opposed to all the smaller, individual internet networks – although work still needs to be done at the local level and schools likely need more funding. to do this.

Viorica said that getting all this was not an easy task. Neither legislative session was very specific, and few lawmakers asked tough or specific questions about the case.

“Going through the steps to set it up is quite a tedious endeavor,” he said.

Will this work?

Viorica spoke to the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee on November 17 about internet improvement projects. But not all lawmakers were convinced it would be unwise.

A deputy, Rep. Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R-Lovington) said he doesn’t see how a broadband partnership for all schools would work in general. He said he was concerned that the technical details of rural capacity and connectivity based on existing servers had not really been worked out.

“All summer I’ve been looking at maps that don’t match the existing village grid,” he said.

Viorica assured the lawmaker that the maps are conceptual and do not represent the exact route of the circuits.

Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo) wasn’t surprised that schools in Rio Arriba County weren’t on the state list to be considered for the new network. School districts with internet service provider contracts cannot connect to the state network until those contracts expire, Viorica said.

He said most of the schools in Herrera’s district are already on a regional network called the North Central Consortium, a precursor to a full state server. Once contracts like this are in place, he said, other schools may apply to join the statewide network.

But even for some small states, it can be difficult to simply apply. Herrera said there is a lot of turnover in education, which makes such applications difficult to implement.

“It’s very difficult from a rural point of view,” he said.

Viorica acknowledged that while the state is trying to help with technical assistance to apply for the broadband process, “it’s a work in progress” and especially difficult for small, local entities.

“The Office of Broadband is really working hard to put some technical assistance resources in place (that will help),” he said. “It doesn’t help today, but it probably will in the years to come.”

The state’s broadband office was created in 2021 with funding to hire six full-time employees. Dianne Lindstrom, deputy director of the state’s broadband office, said the statewide network could be built even faster if the Legislature increases staffing resources when next year’s session begins.

Pettigrew also raised concerns that the large network would leave local Internet providers out of the mix as they try to compete for state and federal funding.

“Our co-ops are built and take decades of time and effort to do this,” he said. “If we go back and build a network where co-ops are left out of the picture, it’s not going to look good on the national news. I will make sure it will get there.”

But Viorica said the plan is to work with local providers to do so based on existing services. According to him, this will be the most cost-effective way to build this internet connection and those providers are in the best position to provide the service.

“We want to work with them because they are local. They are there,” he said. “They will make sure the network is working properly.”

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