Albert Martinez hasn’t had a job since March, when he was laid off after working construction on the roads in Taos Pueblo.
At 56, Martinez still scans the newspapers for work. His wife sometimes wades through the web to look for openings for him. Albert knows it would be easier to do the online job hunt himself, but he doesn’t know how. When his last job had him punch in on a computer, it confused him.
“That’s the world we’re in right now, and it’s not going to get any better,” he says. “Pencils and paper are fading away.”
Martinez is enrolled in a computer-literacy class hosted by Fast Forward New Mexico, a program aimed at increasing broadband adoption in the state. He’s there for the most pragmatic of reasons: to learn how to hunt for work online.
In a country that ranks 17th in the world for the number of people who use the internet, New Mexico is near the bottom of the list, ranking 44th in the nation. The state also ranks 36th in broadband availability—in part because rural areas are typically less connected than urban centers, Carla Rachowski, Fast Forward’s marketing coordinator, tells SFR.
“Everybody knows they’re being left behind if they don’t have access to the internet,” Rachowski says. “It used to be a luxury, but now people realize they need it.”
Rachowski’s students are usually between 45 and 65 years old, and more than half earn less than $25,000 a year. They include the poor and late to adapt, a trend that also persists nationally.
“The internet digital divide pretty well lays over an economic divide,” Richard Lowenberg, the director of 1st-Mile New Mexico, an organization aimed at increasing broadband statewide, tells SFR. “The poorest part of the population and the least-educated part of the population is also the least internet-using population.”
Computers might be the best hope for people like Martinez. A study released by McKinsey & Co. in May says 2.6 jobs were created through the internet for every job lost worldwide.
The cost of internet in Santa Fe, though, is going up, Juan Torres, a specialist with the city’s Economic Development Division, says.
“[Santa Fe] is one of the most unconnected communities, not just in terms of houses, but [also] business,” Torres tells SFR. “The further away from downtown you get, the more expensive you get for service.”
For more than a year, Torres has been in charge of building e-Cequia, a citywide fiber-optic network. The plan, finished in 2008 and paid for with city economic development funds, would wire Santa Fe with 144 strands of fiber-optic cables and 106 anchor connections dispersed throughout public buildings.
All of this would create one efficient, public pipeline that telecom companies like Qwest could use as an anchor to build lines into people’s homes for connection. Torres says this public fiber line would be faster and more efficient than the fiber and copper lines currently owned by the telecom companies.
Much of 2009 and 2010 were spent trying to secure stimulus money to make e-Cequia happen. It didn’t, although Los Alamos, Española and Taos were all awarded grants to build similar fiber networks. It doesn’t help that the telecom industry is generally opposed to the project.
CenturyLink and Comcast provide service to the bulk of Santa Fe through their own fiber lines—a system Chris Dunkeson, the area vice president of Comcast, says the company has “invested millions” to develop.
But Lowenberg argues that shifting a tiny amount of customer utility payments would be enough to implement a broadband plan. Once telecom companies realize one efficient pipeline will bring them more customers than they have now, they’ll jump on, he argues.
Torres, though, isn’t so sure big telecoms will ever be convinced. He’s now looking for funding through private-public partnerships, the city school district and ENMR Plateau, a telecom company that’s using stimulus money to build out part of a fiber network north of Santa Fe.
If the plan goes through, Torres says the technology will vastly expand the city’s infrastructure beyond state government and tourism.
“If we don’t get this thing done in Santa Fe, we’re going to be stuck with the horse and the buggy, and that’s not an option for us,” he says.