Sondra Sage toppled six feet from a collapsed ladder, then crawled, her legs tangled in broken metal, until her spouse found her. She didn’t arrive at the emergency room until almost two hours later. The doctor in Santa Fe asked why she didn’t call an ambulance.
Her response: She couldn’t.
That’s because she doesn’t have cell service at her Pojoaque Valley home and she hasn’t had a landline for two years—not necessarily by choice.
Sage, 58, grew up 90 miles from Oklahoma City on a farm where her landline worked even in extreme weather. Today she can’t get service 12 miles north of Santa Fe. In February, the cell signal went dark. She pays Verizon $85 a month for the privilege of driving to Santa Fe to make a phone call.
Sage moved to the Pojoaque Valley in 2010 for a more sustainable lifestyle, but developing health issues and the lack of service make remote living a challenge. She’s tried selling her home, but potential buyers opt out when she doesn’t answer or return their calls promptly.
“I’d really just like to get the hell out of New Mexico as soon as possible,” she says.
Sage says her service was decent before the signal dropped to zero bars early this year. Verizon told her it was a terrain issue, but if topography was the problem she would never have had service in the first place.
She cancelled her landline and internet service with CenturyLink two years ago after all services were out for an entire winter. A representative told her CenturyLink had no plans to update old infrastructure. Sage gave up arguing with Verizon and CenturyLink after complaining to the Better Business Bureau, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission and the Federal Communication Commission with no effective result.
Sage’s story reflects how unsafe it is to live in an isolated area with no phone service. Her experience is common, SFR found. While people become increasingly dependent on their devices, rural New Mexicans can’t get up to speed despite legislative efforts to fix the problem. The cost of providing adequate connectivity hinders the state’s access to broad cell service and internet speeds other places achieved long ago. Not only is the web an important educational tool, but it’s necessary for some people’s careers. If New Mexico, which ranks near the bottom nationally for internet connectivity speeds, isn’t competitive with other states, people will leave.
Verizon is the main cell carrier serving the Pojoaque Valley. Even in the face of numerous complaints, the company has no plans to address quality of service issues. Although a cell tower site on Highway 502 on property owned by Pojoaque Valley Schools was approved, the project isn’t near construction and no further projects are finalized, Verizon Public Relations Manager Jeannine Brew tells SFR.
The chatter on a neighborhood internet forum shows growing outrage over cell coverage. Detailed complaints fill the message board, and a handful of residents contacted SFR to complain.
Deborah Steven, who lives a few miles west of the Pojoaque Valley at San Ildefonso Pueblo, says her cellphone began dropping calls on Christmas Day last year. As for the internet, Steven can’t even open an e-mail.
“I live 14 miles from where they invented the freaking atomic bomb and I can’t get internet access,” she says.
State Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, says he doesn’t even attempt to make a call from his Pojoaque Valley home anymore. Trujillo says bad service persists in areas like the Pojoaque Valley because companies don’t want to serve places with property right-of-way issues. Companies must obtain permission to put infrastructure on federal, state and tribal land, and they would rather provide service where they don’t have to pay an easement fee, he says. An intermix of four tribal territories and federal land makes the Pojoaque Valley an undesirable location for service carriers.
The national picture for connectivity in rural areas is just as bleak as it is in Pojoaque Valley and neighboring areas in New Mexico.
According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 39 percent of rural Americans (23 million people) lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, while only 4 percent of urban Americans lack access to the same speed.
You could download 15 songs in about four seconds with that speed.
While internet service is even worse in rural areas of New Mexico, the state has ranked among the lowest in terms of internet speed and access for decades.
New Mexico’s dispersed population adds to the challenge of providing reliable service. Joaquin Luna, former president of USCarrier Telecom, LLC, says you’d have to run many miles of fiber optic cable across the state’s nearly 400-mile-square expanse to get service to every household.
He says fiber optic is the only technology that can support the current bandwidth demand. But infrastructure can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000 per mile, then $10,000 a year for maintenance. If a mile of cable provides service to two houses and the company charges $50 a month, the company collects $100 a month.
“No company that has the return value of shareholders is going to jump in a state like New Mexico and spend a bunch of money to get service to people out in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
New Mexico ranked 41st in the nation in broadband speed this year, according to a study by the New America Foundation, Google Open Source Research and Princeton University. The average time it takes to download a movie in New Mexico is an hour and six minutes. You could download a movie twice as quick in the smallest state in the nation, Rhode Island.
Luna gave an example of how far behind New Mexico is, technology-wise. USCarrier set up Verizon’s fourth-generation (4G) broadband network in Atlanta in 2009, while New Mexico didn’t get 4G until 2014, he says.
Luna says the only way to get efficient broadband to rural areas is government funding.
Past efforts have fallen short, he adds. In 2009, then-President Obama distributed $7 billion for rural broadband as part of an economic recovery package—but, Luna says, “Seven billion dollars in the telecommunication world might as well be a dollar.”
Another way to develop broadband in New Mexico would be to repurpose the Universal Service Fund, a tax program originally created in part to service landlines in rural areas. State Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a bill during this year’s legislative session mandating 60 percent of the state Universal Fund to go toward rural broadband development.
“Instead of money going into a dying technology, the money is now being directed to high-speed broadband services in rural parts of New Mexico,” Padilla says.
In 2018, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission will begin taking applications for funding for broadband projects.
Among broadband legislation passed this year, Senate Bill 53 makes requirements less stringent for service providers. Windstream and CenturyLink used to be required to report the performance of their network statewide, but with the passing of SB 53, these larger service providers won’t be as heavily monitored, PRC’s Telecommunications Bureau Chief Mike Ripperger says. Price cap regulations and consumer protection standards also are gone for companies with over 50,000 access lines. So is the PRC’s ability to audit companies.
Sage changed her service from Verizon to Boost Mobile on Oct. 17. She finally gets service at her home in the Pojoaque Valley.
“I am relieved beyond words,” she says. “While there is a part of me that wishes Verizon’s executives could experience a bit of what we have suffered, even I could not wish that horrible trip to the hospital on anyone else. I am still uncertain how they can sleep at night knowing how they are misleading customers and placing people at risk.”