Working to Equalize Access to Internet Services in Northwest New Mexico

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Spend any amount of time talking to John Badal and you get the sense that he has caught a glimpse of the future. Perhaps there’s a blueprint to follow when it comes to getting broadband internet out to all of New Mexico, and the CEO of Sacred Wind Communications has a copy.

But Badal knows all too well that the task of getting New Mexico connected will take effort from more than any one company.

There’s also a bit of a time crunch.

“Covid has demonstrated to us that the solution has to be found in the next two or three years, not the next 10 to 20, as we all thought would happen,” Badal said.

The problem in need of the solution that Badal speaks of is New Mexico’s lack of connectivity. The Land of Enchantment ranks above only Mississippi in terms of internet access, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. That’s 49th.

Within the state, nearly 60% of households in Guadalupe County lacked internet access of any kind. More than 40% of households in five other counties — Quay, Rio Arriba, Harding, Mora and McKinley — lack basic connectivity.

Over the past year, this disadvantage turned into a vulnerability.

More than 350,000 state residents are between the age of 5 years old and 18 years, according to the New Mexico Human Services Department 2021 Data Book. That group required a level of internet access during the pandemic for remote learning that was without precedent.

Meanwhile, U.S. Census projections show New Mexico’s population of adults older than 65 will be among the highest in the country by 2030. Telehealth and virtual medical appointments will go a long way to maintaining the wellbeing of this population.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many rural business opportunities dried up and smaller retailers couldn’t accept online orders.

When it comes to internet access for remote education, virtual medical appointments and day-to-day business functions, without a sustained effort to reach a level of equal and equitable access, these deficiencies will only increase.

Sacred Wind Communications has invested heavily in bringing connectivity to rural parts of Northwest New Mexico, and has ambitions to do even more in the future.

“We’ve told the economic groups that the network and fiber is an economic development asset,” Badal said, adding that as counties across the state work to recruit new companies and diversify the business community, potential clients routinely ask economic development organizations about broadband speeds and infrastructure.

Sacred Wind completed one major portion of that asset in January. The company announced that it finished a 180-mile fiber project that connected Albuquerque and Gallup. Some 10 years in the making, the line doubles up an existing network, meaning an outage won’t necessarily take residential, business and institutional customers offline.

The network also boasts speeds that are future proofed, offering speeds up to 38 terabytes, with capacity that can grow beyond that exponentially as technology demands increase.

So far, Badal estimates Sacred Wind has spent a little more than $100 million to build out internet access in Northwest New Mexico. Half of that figure is from a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan, and much of the remainder came from federal grants.

“The cost and investment also stand to increase because demand and future growth stand to continue to increase,” said Catherine Nicolaou, Sacred Wind’s external affairs manager.

We built a model for the rest of rural America, and a model to provide service in the hardest to reach parts of the country, she said. I think because of our foundation, because of our roots, we’re very much poised to be on the forefront of a lot of that, if we can be. Whether it’s in Northwest New Mexico or the entire state.