Building out broadband requires coordination

Under railroad tracks throughout New Mexico lies buried treasure. The treasure is black fiber.

Black fiber, also called dark fiber, is fiber optic cable that nobody is using, cable that someone had the good sense to put into the ground  anticipating that it might be needed in the future.

We do not know completely where the fiber is, because it probably is only buried under track that has been repaired within recent years, and we don’t know exactly who owns it or has the relevant records.

The word “we” in this context means the individuals in both the public and private sectors who are trying to create a comprehensive state broadband plan.

There are lots of participants, both public and private sector, and as of now nobody is in charge.  All this has to be worked out.

Sen. Michael Padilla has been working on broadband for several years and has introduced legislation to get the parties together. So far he’s been partially successful.

The Association of Commerce and Industry is trying to spearhead a process called a gap analysis, which means figuring out what we know and don’t know, along with an inventory of what we have and don’t have. For example, according to a 2017 study by the Legislative Finance Committee, 92 percent of New Mexico schools have fiber. But in many cases the fiber doesn’t go beyond the school building. High school students sit in their cars in the school parking lot, using the school’s Wi-Fi to do their homework.

Functioning Internet connections require two things: the fiber and the electronic boxes that make the connections work.

As the LFC report explains:

“There are three main types of wired broadband technologies: digital subscriber line (DSL), cable, and fiber optics. DSL is run over telephone wires and is most commonly the only available connection to the home in rural areas. Cable runs over cable television wires and is largely available to the home in urban and higher density rural areas. Fiber is run over flexible glass tubes and is available to the home only in parts of Albuquerque, with some exceptions.”

The report continues: “Only fiber is suitable for users that want to engage in heavy broadband traffic like streaming video on multiple devices, managing large online datasets, or running cloud-based software applications. Wireless technologies are also widely available, but are limited to low speeds for most users for the foreseeable future.”

In other words, meaningful economic activity in rural communities requires fiber, and the fiber has to get past the school into the neighborhoods – the “last mile.”

This is expensive, but we won’t know how expensive until we know in more detail what’s needed; back to that gap analysis. The next stage of cooperation will require a very big table with chairs for lots of people, including those who provide these services (such as phone and cable TV companies) and those who need them.

The LFC report suggests that the solution is to aggregate demand, meaning all potential big data users in a community should pool resources and share the costs and maintenance responsibilities. That includes schools, colleges, government agencies, hospitals, businesses, and so on. The report says that has been successful in other states.

To create that big table and get this all coordinated, Padilla plans to introduce legislation next year to create one central office for statewide high-speed broadband – probably within the existing state Department of Information Technology, known as DoIT.

I have commented repeatedly that New Mexico government agencies and organizations are not particularly good at working across organizational boundaries, cooperating or sharing resources.  Our governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has obviously notice the same problem and talks about state government breaking out of silos. Broadband development is one where cooperation, coordination and communication can make a huge difference.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019

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