Dot-com Desert

THOREAU—Even when clouds blanket the expansive skies of western New Mexico, the red sandstone of Owl Springs Mesa behind Sadie Perry’s home stands out. Every morning before she wakes the kids, Perry steps outside for a moment of quiet and prayer.

“I think that’s the only thing that keeps me going, is praying,” she said.

Thoreau Middle School, where Sadie Perry works and some of her grandchildren attend classes, effectively closed in March 2020 for the remainder of the school year.
Thoreau Middle School, where Sadie Perry works and some of her grandchildren attend classes, effectively closed in March 2020 for the remainder of the school year. (Kelli Johansen/)

An enrolled tribal member, Perry lives in the southeast corner of the Navajo Nation on a property with three buildings, two horses and 11 family members, including her six grandsons and one of her daughters, who is ailing. When the coronavirus began sweeping across the world last year, Perry quickly loaded up on pandemic supplies, including food to feed her family, diesel to power her generator and water to fill her tank.

But there is one essential that has always been scarce in this part of the country and that she couldn’t stock up on: broadband access.

“The only time that [my grandchildren] get on computers is when they come here, to school,” Perry said in the principal’s office of Thoreau Middle School, which sits 4 miles from her home. “Because we don’t have internet at the house…where we’re at there’s no service at all.”

Sadie Perry’s home runs off a diesel generator; she regularly drives 40 minutes to buy water from Gallup to fill her tank. It’s only 4 miles from the school where Perry works, but the family has virtually no internet access.
Sadie Perry’s home runs off a diesel generator; she regularly drives 40 minutes to buy water from Gallup to fill her tank. It’s only 4 miles from the school where Perry works, but the family has virtually no internet access. (Kelli Johansen/)

Perry’s home isn’t wired for broadband access. The school district, where Perry works as an education assistant, gave the family a hot spot in August 2020, but it didn’t function well. Cell phone access is also spotty on the Perry property. On some days she and her grandsons, ages 5 to 13, would pile into her white Chevy Trailblazer to find places with more reliable cell service. On other days, they just missed school.

Perry’s home isn’t connected to the electrical grid either, so the family was also missing reliable electricity to power their devices. By the time school restarted in person in the spring of 2021, Perry estimated her grandsons had missed out on almost a full year of academic learning due to their lack of reliable broadband, which provides the infrastructure needed to access the internet.

In New Mexico, 77% of households have a broadband subscription, according to a Census report released in April, though some industry observers say the numbers are lower. That compares with 85% nationally. And even for those who are connected, the service doesn’t come cheap. Just 13% of New Mexico’s population has access to a low-price internet service plan, according to Broadband Now, a research group.

The state’s rugged landscape, its patchwork of state, federal and tribal land ownership, and the minimal coordination between internet providers and government agencies combine to keep New Mexico consistently near the bottom on national surveys measuring internet access in homes.

During the period of remote learning, New Mexico’s Public Education Department made testing optional for districts given the challenges of administering assessments during the pandemic. According to the department’s assessment participation data, only 30% of schools administered the state test. The education department explained, with the limited data, it’s difficult to measure the extent to which learning gaps widened across the state.

When New Mexico’s children were suddenly required to attend school via the internet in March 2020, it went badly for many of them. Families spent the school day in fast-food parking lots, outside libraries or on top of mesas trying to catch a signal. Some students were never heard from for the rest of that school year. And those who could connect were often plagued by slow download speeds and frequently interrupted service.

Versions of the same story played out across rural America, making the problem impossible to ignore.

Perry pulls out a textbook she used for the associate degree in early childhood education she is pursuing so she can secure a higher-paying teaching position in the district.
Perry pulls out a textbook she used for the associate degree in early childhood education she is pursuing so she can secure a higher-paying teaching position in the district. (Kelli Johansen/)

“It’s not so audacious to sit here and say that as we come out of this pandemic, we are going to decide that every student in this country gets the internet access that they need to fully support their education and succeed in school,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates US interstate and international communications, said in an interview.

Under pressure to finally achieve the goals outlined in the 2010 National Broadband Plan, the FCC continues to roll out programs and dollars to get the whole country online. The most recent funding, $7 billion available to schools and libraries, came from the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund and targets the “homework gap” that will persist long after kids return to in-person schooling. The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill would invest an additional $65 billion, less than the $100 billion President Joe Biden initially proposed, toward the expansion of high-speed broadband across the country. Just this week, the House said it would vote before Sept. 27.

Getting everyone online seems far off in Perry’s community, which also lacks universal access to running water and electricity. The absence of broadband access effectively ended the 2019-20 school year in March of 2020. By August 2020, the Gallup-McKinley County school district, where Perry works and her grandchildren attend school, had provided students with one-to-one devices and T-Mobile hot spots.

Three of the five Perry grandchildren who live with their grandmother.
Three of the five Perry grandchildren who live with their grandmother. (Kelli Johansen/)

But Perry said the hot spots worked only when the matching cellular network covered that area. Where she lives, a Verizon hot spot would probably have worked for online schooling, she said—but that’s not what was provided.

“That’s the mistake they made,” said Perry. (The district provided only T-Mobile hot spots, an official said, because it received a discount for buying in bulk.)

Quick fixes like the hot spots were common during the last school year. There were roaming buses fitted with wireless signals, tables set up outside buildings so students could access the schools’ internet and federal assistance to help families pay for prohibitively expensive internet plans. But these stopgap measures were mostly paid for by the CARES Act and other short-term funding.

Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, among other states, have similarly dire internet access issues. Even if families living in rural areas are lucky enough to have reliable broadband infrastructure in their communities, they’re usually priced out of plans. Counties where less than 50% of the population has access to affordable and reliable internet, and more than 30% live below the poverty line, are called “broadband deserts,” according to Broadband Now.

In New Mexico, eight of 33 counties are deserts.

“I think they forgot us out here,” said Perry, a desert-dweller in more than one sense.

As students struggled to learn during the pandemic, the New Mexico Legislature took steps this year to show they had not forgotten rural kids and families. Legislators created a Connect New Mexico Council and an Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to oversee the new internet access projects. The council is in charge of overseeing the funding, and the office is organizing the projects.

In Colfax County in the northeastern section of the state, where wide swaths of grass stretch between hills, broadband access is among the lowest in New Mexico, and the students living here are suffering the consequences.

The 950-student Raton school district covers 1,000 square miles of rolling ranchland. Many students here didn’t have access to the bandwidth needed to join virtual lessons live, especially when others in the house were also online, said Christopher Bonn, who recently stepped down as district superintendent. The town’s existing telecommunications infrastructure couldn’t support the much larger numbers of hot spots connecting to its lone cellular tower.

In fact, Bonn said, the deluge taxed the tower to the point that the hot spots provided download speeds up to four megabits per second, about one-sixth of the standard speed recommended by the FCC. This internet speed, enough to use email and host a small group video call, accommodates just a fraction of the tools needed for online learning.

Despite these challenges, Bonn doesn’t see last year as a complete loss.

“Covid has provided us some opportunities that we probably should have been looking at in education 20 years ago,” he said. “All of my students right now have a mobile hot spot. All of my students now have one-to-one technology.”

Learning to work independently provided students with a valuable educational experience, Bonn added.

Still, he sees last year’s internet-access problem as a call to invest in the region’s telecommunications infrastructure.

In the parking lot of Domino’s Pizza in Raton, Paul Briesh Jr. sat in a white pickup, listing the businesses and schools that rely on the company he manages, Baca Valley Telephone and Sierra Communications, for internet access.

“Domino’s is on our fiber, that’s one of our customers,” he said, pointing to the shop on the corner. “Most of the businesses in Raton are ours.”

After the Telecommunications Act of 1996, large companies that had a monopoly in areas like Raton, where there was little investment in infrastructure, suddenly faced competition from local exchange carriers who were more willing to build the infrastructure themselves.

Paul Briesh Jr. checks connections at one of the Baca Valley facilities outside Raton, connecting fiber cables around town to larger data centers in Denver and Albuquerque.
Paul Briesh Jr. checks connections at one of the Baca Valley facilities outside Raton, connecting fiber cables around town to larger data centers in Denver and Albuquerque. (William Melhado/)

Briesh is still building. After checking on his customers in the farthest corner of the state one late-spring morning, he spent the afternoon on a backhoe helping to bury fiber.

“It’s an 80-hour-a-week job,” he said.

That’s because the best way to provide customers with reliable internet is to connect them, physically, to the broadband network. Despite the frequent use of the term “wireless,” the internet relies primarily on physical cables—underground, in the air, even underwater—to send data from one computer to another.

And even though most people no longer plug their computers into the wall to get online, a physical connection, preferably with fiber-optic cables, provides the most consistent signal. Towers connected to the cables can send and receive signals within a designated range, but fiber lines must still be run to the towers, if not to individual homes.

And that fiber, made of hair-thin glass wire, needs to stretch across the nation to connect the schools and homes of families still offline. Fiber shortages in the market add another layer of complexity to the task, said representatives of several small internet providers interviewed for this story.

In New Mexico, the work of expanding broadband access falls to small internet service providers, because they have a vested interest in the economic development of rural communities. As residents themselves, they see their businesses thrive when customers can get online, increasing productivity and enabling local companies to access larger markets.

“That’s why we’re here and they’re not,” said Briesh, referring to the lack of development by big national providers. “And we’re getting beat up pretty hard by the feds and the state and locals and everybody and all the residents saying, ‘Why aren’t you putting in more fiber?’”

Briesh said he is putting in more fiber. But the process is expensive and slow.

“In Raton alone, to put aerial fiber down all the alleys and stuff, just for a tiny portion of Raton, is about $25,000 a mile,” Briesh said. “We charge $39 for internet, and so do the math.”

Baca Valley recently applied for a grant from the state for 8 miles of new fiber, but it will serve only 50 to 100 customers. At $39 a month for 100 customers, the best-case scenario, it will take more than four years to earn back the $200,000 spent to lay the fiber. The state grant means Baca Valley will begin to see a profit a little sooner, but it’s a long-term investment rather than a fast buck. It’s not quick enough for most banks, which means providers are dependent on government loans.

And getting the money to lay the new lines is just one part of the challenge. Before they can even start digging trenches or putting up utility poles, companies need to secure rights of way and other permits, which eats up time.

“It’s just insanity,” Briesh said.

Back on the other side of the state, Lynnea Smith pulled up a map of the eastern region of the Navajo Nation—one she occasionally uses when teaching her students about the history of land in New Mexico—to explain why securing permission to lay fiber is so difficult. Smith’s map showed a large chunk that belongs exclusively to the tribal government. Surrounding it is a checkerboard of different colors signifying the dizzying number of land distinctions in this part of the state that Gallup-McKinley County Schools serves. Crownpoint High School, which Smith attended and where she now teaches, is on that checkerboard map, not far north of tiny Thoreau.

“There’s BLM [the federal Bureau of Land Management], there’s tribal trust, there’s government trust, there’s state land, private land—you got a whole bunch of land jurisdictional issues,” she said. “How do those get addressed? When do we get these entities working together?”

In the past, New Mexico has relied on providers like Baca Valley to slowly build the infrastructure in the most hard-to-reach places, said Gar Clarke, a geospatial information officer with the state’s Department of Information Technology (DoIT).

“They’re a business, they’re into making some cash, and if they don’t have a good return on investment, they’re not going to go and provide services to that ranch or farm out there, or that cluster of homes,” Clarke said.

But even though the state needs small companies to do this work, subsidies are hard to come by, he said. Clarke pointed to the anti-donation clause in the New Mexico Constitution—a provision that prevents the state government from giving money to an individual or organization. The law prohibits internet service providers like Baca Valley from receiving money directly from the state to undertake development projects without navigating the bureaucracy to apply for legal loans or grants.

“It’s kinda crazy because this is our tax dollars, which we cannot spend to improve our communities,” said Clarke. “What we are talking about is streamlining it...get everybody in a room and put together a right-of-way permitting plan that incorporates federal, state and local entities.”

Despite the newly created broadband council and office, that plan has yet to materialize.

Devona Juan and her three children live just east of Thoreau, still within the Navajo Nation, where juniper and sagebrush spot the arid landscape. Juan said her children were in online classes on time almost every day during the school year. If she wasn’t at home because she was running errands in nearby Gallup, she would receive a notification from teachers at Thoreau Elementary School when her kids didn’t show up to class.

“If they’re not in class, I automatically call [my son] on the phone,” she said, laughing. “I really get on them every day.”

Devlin, 13, Juan’s oldest, enjoyed learning at home, using an iPad to attend classes, but his mom acknowledged their living situation is less than ideal for online schooling. Like Perry, she relies on a generator, which makes charging devices needed for online learning challenging.

But she and her kids did have a reliable internet connection. Sacred Wind Communications, an internet service provider that works largely in rural, tribal communities like Juan’s, set the family up with a wireless router powered by a dining table-sized solar panel behind their home.

Sandra Howe, a Sacred Wind Communications representative, poses in front of the solar panel installed at Devona Juan’s home east of Thoreau.
Sandra Howe, a Sacred Wind Communications representative, poses in front of the solar panel installed at Devona Juan’s home east of Thoreau. (William Melhado/)

John Badal, CEO of Sacred Wind, knows many homes in tribal communities get power from generators, and he understands these electrical supplies couldn’t reliably support a router to send and receive signals necessary to get online. So the company began using the sun to help address the issue of broadband inaccessibility.

While the service helped Juan’s children get an education last year, it costs $70 a month, which is a significant burden for many rural families. Funding from an FCC program helps Juan cover $50, but that funding is one of the stopgap measures that will soon run out.

Rosenworcel of the FCC, a Biden appointee, said that even before the pandemic, seven in 10 teachers assigned homework that required internet access. When schools went online and millions of kids didn’t have the internet needed to attend class and complete assignments, the “homework gap” widened.

“And it could be a long-term opportunity gap if we don’t do something,” Rosenworcel said. “To be successful in school right now, every child needs a consistent and reliable internet connection, and in the United States of America we should find a way to make that happen.”

In recent months, states have committed to just that. California recently announced a $6 billion investment in public broadband development. Virginia will invest $700 million in American Rescue Plan funding, and South Dakota has approved $100 million for the expansion of broadband internet. In addition to creating the state offices in the 2021 session, the New Mexico Legislature allocated $133 million toward broadband expansion projects.

Along with money from the state, New Mexico lawmakers hope to use money from existing and new federal broadband initiatives to connect more families. Clarke, the DoIT official, said he doesn’t yet know how much of that money might flow to New Mexico, but his department estimates that up to an additional $647 million may be needed to reach all locations in the state.

Both the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion and the Connect New Mexico Council are in a state of flux, said Clarke. He and his department are still waiting for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, to appoint a director to the broadband office.

“We’re hoping that these monies are being spent with due diligence,” he said. “We’re here to help, but the thing is we’re not set up yet with this new legislation, which is too bad.”

Clarke thinks that ultimately, more innovative broadband technologies will be necessary to connect rural areas where laying miles of fiber cable is not realistic.

One FCC grant recipient, SpaceX, launched low-orbit satellites that provide customers with high-speed internet. When the program reaches its full capacity, the company hopes to provide near global coverage, though in the current phase, costs remain high. Other new broadband technologies—mesh networks, tethered drones, microwave radio links—could be part of a mosaic of solutions for rural areas if the funding ever arrives to support them.

When the internet finally reaches Perry’s home, she’ll be happy to have it. But she’s not waiting for that day to come.

Her daughter just graduated from law school, and her grandsons are training bucking bulls. They are also back to playing basketball and have taken over responsibility for the family’s barn full of horses and cattle.

Only after the kids are in bed does Perry crack open her textbooks for the associate degree in early childhood education she’s pursuing. She plans to get a teaching position that allows her to share her knowledge of Native traditions and teach young people to speak Navajo.

There are online study options, but she sticks with pen and paper—more reliable in these parts.

By the numbers:

  • 77%: portion of New Mexico households with broadband access
  • 85%: portion of US households with broadband access
  • 8 — New Mexico counties that are “broadband deserts”
  • $65 billion — amount of possible federal funding for broadband expansion if infrastructure compromise passes
  • $133 million — allocated this year by the Legislature toward broadband expansion projects
  • $657 million — additional amount estimated to cover the whole state

This story about broadband access was produced in collaboration between the Santa Fe Reporter and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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