By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Expanding educational and health care opportunities are two main objectives of the New Mexico Regional Broadband Implementation Pilot (RBIP), a state program aimed at making broadband Internet services available to everyone in New Mexico.
The program has targeted northeast New Mexico and an area of southwest New Mexico to test approaches to increasing broadband capability with a goal of providing “statewide broadband that is equally affordable, redundant and abundant,” according to program literature.
Broadband capability includes services like phone lines, fixed wireless points and cell phone services that can deliver high-speed Internet services and content to end users. In northeast New Mexico, the RBIP program is working through the Northeast Economic Development Organization, which is based in Raton.
At a fact-finding session Wednesday, hosted by Tucumcari Schools, Gar Clarke, who heads mapping operations for RBIP and the New Mexico Broadband Program, said enhancing education and health services to often isolated residents and communities in New Mexico’s sparsely populated areas are the main benefits that enhanced broadband availability can deliver. Health services could even mean in-home doctor visits online for isolated individuals, and better access. Enhanced broadband availability could mean better communications between rural hospitals and between rural hospitals and their patients, he said.
Among other things, the broadband program is seeking to catalogue public wi-fi sites and list their capabilities to make it easy for users to find and use them.
Educational benefits could include better access to online testing services and even “flip classrooms,” in which students could listen to lecture material at home and apply the information at school, which would reverse the traditional approach of classroom lectures and application through homework, according to Mark Carrara, information technology coordinator for Tucumcari Public Schools.
Rusty Rucker, information technology coordinator for Regional Education Center 6, which serves 10 school districts in Quay, Curry, Roosevelt and De Baca counties, said better broadband availability would help standardize bandwidth available to schools, especially in an area where 90 percent of the schools serve high-poverty communities.
Cararra said there is a great need in regional schools for students to learn more about capabilities available through broadband. Most, he said, use cell phones only for texting and social networking through Facebook and other sites. Few, he said, are aware of the information-gathering and organizing capacity of cell phones, tablet computers and other devices that use broadband capability. Such skills are becoming more important to daily life in the information age, he said.
Wednesday’s meeting was designed to be a fact-finding session for both the RBIP and broadband program. Clarke was accompanied by consultants Susan Oberlander, of the New Mexico Dept. of Information Technology, and Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Energy and Technology, which is helping to evaluate New Mexico’s broadband capability as part of a national broadband study. Their purpose was supposed to be to gather information about broadband availability and learn more about areas where it is lacking, but much of the discussion was about approaches to enhancing broadband capability.
Participants, besides Rucker and Cararra, including State Rep. Dennis Roch, who was also participating as superintendent of Logan Schools; Ron Wilmot, regional representative U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján; Larry Wickham, IT coordinator for Mesalands Community College; Jeanne O’Dean, who is proposing a “virtual world” business for the Tucumcari area; Buddy Vaughan, Chief Business Development Officer for ENMR Plateau; Ray Crumm, supervisor of operations for Centurylink. (CONFIRM); and Dylan Lewis, operator of the KOA Campground just south of Tucumcari.
Lewis said he cannot receive DSL service that would allow him to conduct business functions on the Internet and to provide “wi-fi” services that would allow customers to have Internet services during overnight stays. He said he would likely have more multiple-night customers if they could enjoy better Internet access than he can now provide. The cost of satellite service, about $500 a month, and a direct T-1 telephone cable connection, estimated at $700 and $800 a month, is more than he can afford, he said.
Wickham addressed the need for broadband to serve Mesalands’ far-flung student body. Many, he said, must receive compact disks to keep up with class work because they live in areas without service. Better broadband, he said, would also enhance the college’s ability to provide adult basic education, leading to a GED high-school equivalency diploma. He said students will sometimes sit in the Mesalands parking lot to pick up on the college’s wi-fi signals in order to do homework.
Jeanne O’Dean said enhanced broadband capability would also enhance her ability to expand “virtual world” capabilities for students. She said she plans to have students create a “virtual Tucumcari,” using software tools.
While Clarke favored a public-private partnership approach to widening broadband’s reach, Roch said he would rather see broadband capability increase for existing customers in proven markets, and tax incentives offered to broadband businesses willing to expand into under-served areas. Since much of the land that is out of the reach of broadband services is very sparsely populated, he said, there is not much incentive for businesses to risk expanding capabilities in these areas when markets may not be there.
Roch also expressed concern about how “hospital” would be defined. Hovis assured the group that the term would be very broadly defined, even to include nursing homes and various medical clinics.
Crumm and Vaughan discussed logistical and business considerations involved with bringing broadband to small numbers of isolated customers.
“If you can make it available to 95 percent of the residents, but only 45 percent sign up, why do it?” Vaughan asked.
Hovis said the priorities of the broadband expansion are first, to bring broadband services to homes and businesses that have none, then to focus on under-served customers and to bring affordable service to areas where only high-priced services, like satellite service, are available now. The search is for clusters of 10 to 70 homes that could be served relatively cheaply with distributed fixed wireless facilities. She said, however, that another key to placing facilities for new service would be whether the demand for broadband services would be sustainable.
An area like the Tucumcari community, she said, is already well served with DSL phone Internet service, and the ability to tap into fiber-optic lines, which have been placed in the city to serve “community anchor institutions,” like city halls, hospitals and libraries.
Both the broadband mapping project and the RBIP are funded by the Dept. of Information Technology under a five-year, $4.8 million grant from National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) to enhance and expand the mapping and planning of broadband availability and adoption within New Mexico. The NTIA funds are provided through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
According to its web site, The New Mexico Broadband Program’s (NMBBP) mission is to have Broadband accessible to each and every New Mexican by 2015. Currently, New Mexico’s broadband adoption rate is one of the five lowest nationally. The NMBBP is committed to moving New Mexico to one of the top five states, the website said.