The passing of the American Rescue Plan Act this year allocated $131 million in economic stimulus funds to go to Bernalillo County—$10 million of which is being used for the implementation and operation of broadband infrastructure in the East Mountains and West Mesa.
That’s according to Clay Campbell, chief of staff for the Bernalillo County Manager and head of the team spearheading the initiative. The funds will go toward implementation of “future-proof technology” to install a system and get it operational in order to efficiently provide services to residents, he said.
“We’re not prescribing the technology. We don’t want to get bound into just one technology that’s going to be obsolete in the future, so we’re calling it future-proof technology,” he said. Depending on geography, terrain, and density of homes, Campbell said that could be a mix of varying technologies.
“We’re trying to keep it open-ended,” he said.
The ARPA, signed into law by President Joseph Biden in March, details that underserved households and businesses will be prioritized in the deployment of these broadband development funds.
The bill defines qualifying households and businesses as “those that are not currently served by a wireline connection that reliably delivers at least 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps of upload speed.”
As residents of the East Mountains know well, speedy, reliable internet is not guaranteed to be available. Many areas lack cell phone service as well.
Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty, who lives in Tijeras, said “being a resident, knowing how spotty our internet could be—right after I was elected, I went to county staff and I said, ‘We need to make this a priority.’”
In addition to being D5 commissioner, Pyskoty is also a licensed mental health professional in private practice. During the pandemic, she began telehealth appointments with her clients, as did multiple medical professionals around the world.
“It’s awesome until the internet gives out,” she said.
But it’s precisely her experiences as both a casual and professional user of broadband internet in the East Mountains that has spurred her interest in improving access for all residents in her district, she said.
“People have been having telehealth—mental health and physical health—sessions with their healthcare providers,” Pyskoty said. “Kids with their homework, people trying to work from home, plus all the streaming services that we have now. It’s just a basic quality of life. Especially during the pandemic, connecting with people while you’re in isolation. We need reliable internet.”
Before Covid was a blip on the radar, Pyskoty, Campbell, and others had already begun the process of researching ways to get the funding necessary to improve broadband in District 5. “In the East Mountains, topography, vegetation, trees, and low-density development have impeded, and are obstacles to, efficient broadband development,” Campbell said.
He and his team had been researching funding and grant writing for broadband development, as well as geographical challenges facing the development of supporting infrastructure, since 2019.
“So here we are, 21st century, [internet is] an essential utility, and the Covid hits.”
The pandemic “really exposed how insufficient the [broadband] service is,” said Campbell, “especially in this day and age, with a home having multiple devices, and with multiple people needing to be on devices at the same time.”
But the timing of the pandemic, and the subsequent economic stimulus packages, worked out for Bernalillo County.
“Getting that ARPA money at this time is just such a gift to us because we were prepared,” said Pyskoty. “We were ready. We’ve done our research, and we’re ready to hit the ground running.”
At present, D5 has a Request for Information, or an RFI, out so that the county “can get educated about what the hurdles, the constraints, and the opportunities are from an installation standpoint, as well as from a monthly operational standpoint,” said Campbell.
Once potential suppliers respond to that RFI, which Campbell expects to happen by Nov. 8, the county will then put together an informed Request for Proposal, or an RFP.
With that RFP, the county can then solicit “design build teams of telecom contractors and internet service providers to work with our public works folks to design/build a system for the East Mountains that’s future-proof and robust,” Campbell said.
He estimates the county will submit an RFP “sometime right after the New Year,” he said.
The RFP will need to be advertised for at least 30 days, after which, “depending on what kind of response we get, I can see making a selection around a March-ish … time frame to get under contract with a telecom contractor and an internet service provider,” Campbell said.
“Everybody wants a magic wand to wave, and all of the sudden we wake up to 5G speeds and streaming movies and games and all that,” Campbell said, adding, “We’re not there just yet.”
A FAQ page addressing multiple aspects of the broadband development plan can be found at bernco.gov/district-5/east-mountain-broadband/.