U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez meets Wednesday in Espanola with, from left, Espanola Planning Director Richard Hubler, REDINet Vice Chair Jerrold Baca, Mayor Javier Sanchez, and REDINet chair Raymond Ortiz. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and her Field Representative Derrick Toledo meet Wednesday with Sen. Leo Jaramillo. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez chats about the Congressional Rural Broadband Task Force with City of Espanola officials and REDINet representatives. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Espanola Mayor Javier Sanchez and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez swap details of their time at Yale University, their mutual alma mater. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez told Espanola City officials Wednesday afternoon that broadband is the today’s electricity and the rural piece is really big in New Mexico.
Leger-Fernandez was in town to discuss a request she received from the City to use $1.17 million in community directed funding appropriations to support the City’s broadband initiative. The City’s project was selected as one of the 10 Leger Fernandez can submit out of 75 she received in her district.
Present at Wednesday’s meeting were Mayor Javier Sanchez, City Manager Xavier Martinez, Planning Director Richard Hubler and IT Director Ismael Gomez as well as REDINet chair Raymond Ortiz and vice chair Jerrold Baca. In partnership with REDINet and building on Cares Act spending last fall to upgrade local broadband structure, the City’s proposal is to blanket the City with a high-speed wireless “net” that would provide internet access to some 5,000 homes and businesses.
Leger-Fernandez liked the collaboration between the City and REDINet on the proposed project. She said this is the first time for community supported projects.
“Broadband is hugely important for New Mexico. The minute I arrived in Congress, House Majority Whip James Cliburn invited me to join his Rural Broadband Task Force and we worked on that bill. I included issues in that bill that I thought were very important to New Mexico, such as being able to allow people, organizations and governments to collaborate because now you have to apply separately for this money and it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “This project – the way you’re doing it – could be so immediate.”
Mayor Javier Sanchez agreed with Leger Fernandez that broadband is the new infrastructure need. He noted that Ortiz has been working on the issue for more than 15 years. Sanchez said the coat tails the City is riding on right now are thanks to REDINet because they have been in the trenches making sure the proposed project is viable.
“With COVID, everyone has their story about what it meant to them individually and to the City. When we look at real statistics, Espanola had the second or third worst internet speed in the country. Espanola is clearly in one of the poorest counties in the state – perhaps the the second poorest county of the poorest state in the country. We have real challenges we are trying to deal with,” Sanchez reminded Leger Fernandez.
“We collaborated with Los Alamos National Laboratory and they said they could put together a study to give us a needs assessment because you can’t start without knowing what you have and what you don’t have. They put together a really good packet that showed what our weaknesses were but also how to move forward,” he said. “Basically it’s a three-pronged approach. What do you need to band-aid right now? What can you do in the mid-term and long-term, what does broadband look like in Espanola?”
Sanchez said long haul will have to come at some time with fiber to the home.
“That’s a long ways out. We have a lot of issues to deal with. In the medium term what we have to look at is projects like what we have before us right now. We thought what if we came up with a humble ask and quite frankly, this $1.2 million would go so far,” he said. “We have about 5,000 homes in the City of Espanola. The point is we have geography that’s inconsistent and we have some great providers, but if a tree grows four inches in one year and you lose line of sight you no longer have internet. It’s that simple and it’s that sad. We needed a better system and we needed a better program so these guys put that together….This grant could potentially provide internet to all 5,000 homes in the City of Espanola.”
Following a presentation on the proposed project, Leger Fernandez said she thought the proposed project is impressive. She noted that the 10 projects being submitted from her district, which is the size of Pennsylvania, are all compelling. She said she did everything she could to send the Espanola project “down the stream”.
“I can’t guarantee that it will be funded but what we can do is work with you to see if there are other ways of getting it funded. The great thing about community based projects is that they can come on line a lot faster. You are at a point that you can get it up. This is something that can happen fast and we need to show that it’s possible. That’s what excites me about this project,” Leger Fernandez said.
Leger Fernandez and her field representative Derrick Toledo later met privately with District 5 Sen. Leo Jaramillo to discuss issues related to his district.