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Broadband providers, lawmakers discuss obstacles to expanding internet service

Updated: 12:36 am, Fri Oct 21, 2016.

When John Brown’s internet company in Albuquerque learned that one of his competitors was digging a trench to install cable downtown, he asked to share the cost.

Brown’s CityLink Telecommunications is planning a 20-mile fiber-optic loop from downtown to Mesa del Sol, a new development west of the Albuquerque International Sunport. He thought the cost-sharing would benefit his company, his competitor and the city of Albuquerque, which wants to expand internet service to residents.

The other company rejected his request. That lack of cooperation was one example of problems cited to state lawmakers Thursday who serve on the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee and are faced with the challenge of extending broadband internet service in New Mexico.

In a rural state with multiple governments and tribal jurisdictions, right-of-way issues remain the biggest obstacles when data providers want to lay cable and extend services in New Mexico, many told lawmakers.

Municipalities in New Mexico can impose franchise fees on utilities to cross into their jurisdictions. County governments and tribes can require right-of-way fees, and it can take months to gain approvals.

“As this day goes on and on, I realize how complicated this problem is,” said Rep. Carl Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat whose district includes tribal governments. “We can have all the technology available. The impediments to anyone getting broadband are the rights of way. Many people suffer because they can’t get broadband.”

The testimony was part of a daylong hearing in front of an interim committee looking at broadband access in New Mexico, especially hard-to-reach areas with low-density populations.

Broadband is a general term for high-speed internet. Unlike data that moves through a telephone line, heavier and more intense images, videos and music require thicker and more advanced fiber-optic connections. And connecting communities still requires expensive investments.

The data links are no longer provided by just telephone companies. Many entities in New Mexico provide broadband, from cooperatives to large phone companies such as CenturyLink to Comcast Cable, a national company that started as a television provider but now offers broadband as well as residential telephone service. Comcast is not regulated by the state.

Many smaller communities and tribal lands are being served, but obstacles remain.

Brown said he has installed broadband in other countries and rural parts of the United States. His company is dedicated to providing direct links into homes and businesses along the Rio Grande corridor. He said higher speeds and better internet are available in places more remote than New Mexico through a combination of cable and wireless technology.

With regard to the right-of-way issues, he suggested the state create a one-stop agency that could handle all the approvals for state roads, local governments and tribal entities, if possible.

“Right of way is the biggest cost for broadband,” added Katherine Martinez of CenturyLink, a company that has 38 individual franchise agreements with cities, as well as separate agreements with counties and tribal governments.

Brown also said the state could do more to clarify the rules for attaching equipment to public poles and other buildings, and make it easier for routers and other internet-programmed devices to pair with each other, when necessary, so connections can find the shortest route between two points.

Rep. John Zimmerman, R-Las Cruces, noted that there is no effort by the state Department of Transportation to notify data companies about roadwork so that, if they want to install a cable or a trench, cooperation could be an option.

The lack of coordination in New Mexico was echoed by Terry Brunner, the state rural development director for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

“We have lots of cooks in the kitchen, but we have no cookbook to tell us how to get these services out there,” he told lawmakers.

Brunner said his agency funded several broadband projects with federal stimulus money in 2009 and 2010, but it has not seen any coordinated applications from New Mexico since.

“The state needs a plan to tap into federal money,” he said. “I’ve seen Colorado’s blueprint for a new economy, I’ve seen Nevada’s and Utah’s. We are lacking those blueprints,” he said.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, a member of the legislative Jobs Council and chairman of Thursday’s hearing, said better coordination was the primary purpose of the testimony. He plans to have draft legislation ready by next month.

“You want to have your projects ready to go, should there be more stimulus money available,” Brunner added.

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.com.

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