Thursday, March 11, 2010

Quarreling with Qwest Over the “Digital Divide” in New Mexico


Our local TV news station, KOB-TV, reported last night that $10 million in federal stimulus money will be used to bring broadband Internet service to rural residents of the Penasco Valley in southeastern New Mexico, a service area of approximately 4,700 square miles.

While I’m happy for – and envious of – my fellow rural New Mexicans who’ll finally get high-speed Internet, I bitterly resent that we American taxpayers are footing this bill on behalf of Qwest, the telecommunications giant which holds a virtual monopoly over most of the state of New Mexico.

Ten years ago Qwest was awarded this monopoly, and in return agreed to spend $788M to upgrade New Mexico’s rural telecommunication infrastructure, including high-speed Internet access.

A decade later, Qwest has failed to honor this commitment, with more than $200M in upgrades unperformed, amounting to more than 25% of their contractual obligation. And outside of the metropolitan areas of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Qwest has simply not provided high-speed Internet access.

“As a state, New Mexico sadly falls towards the bottom of the list” of Internet availability in the US, says Senator Tom Udall. [full text here]

The arithmetic seems simple: Qwest owes us 20 times the amount of this $10M federal stimulus grant. Were Qwest to honor its contract, at this rate broadband Internet could be provided to over 94,000 square miles of rural New Mexico (remember, the entire state is only 121,593 square miles). Then these ten million US tax dollars could be spent on other equally urgent projects in New Mexico.

I live in the East Mountains, a semi-rural area only 20 miles east of Albuquerque, our largest city. But I cannot obtain high-speed Internet from Qwest. All Qwest offers us is dial-up. As Comcast does not offer us cable service, either, I pay almost four times the national average to access the Internet.

Of course, even if we could get Qwest’s Internet service, I’m not sure we’d want it at the service level Qwest provides New Mexicans. In state, Qwest is notorious for outages like last December’s multi-day, multi-county lapse, for example. This failure, the third in three months, was traced to one of Qwest’s DSL DS3 circuits, known as a “big pipe”. DS3 big pipe failures like these “almost never happen in other Qwest states,” according to Jane Hill, president of CyberMesa, a Santa Fe telecom reseller who depends on Qwest’s big pipes for her livelihood. “The lack of Qwest investment in home phone lines and major circuits is taking its toll on the New Mexico economy and on future investment in the State.” [full text here]

Of course there are those who argue that Americans who choose to live in rural areas simply don’t deserve high-speed Internet service, as does the author of the Errors of Enchantment blog. Perhaps he’s right; and perhaps we don’t deserve electricity, either. Maybe we should all move to Albuquerque, leaving the crude oil, natural gas, cattle, goats, apples, pecans and chile peppers to tend and harvest themselves.

“Deployment of broadband supports job creation and rural economic development," says US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “opening new opportunities not only for homes and businesses, but for community institutions such as health facilities, libraries, public buildings and community centers." [full text here]

So you’d think in a state that just posted the highest unemployment rate increase in the nation, access to high-speed Internet would be a top priority for our elected officials. Not so. In our last legislative session, two pro-Qwest / anti-consumer bills were introduced and only narrowly defeated; quoting NM Public Regulation Commissioner Jason Marks,

SB 37 [sponsored by Sen. Carlos Cisneros] was a fast-track to complete deregulation of Qwest prices, service quality, and in-state investments; and HB 107 [sponsored by Rep. Roberto Gonzales] was a cleverly disguised, unjustified rate increase for Qwest, Windstream, and the rural monopoly telephone companies.” [full text here]

Qwest’s decade of performance in New Mexico under regulatory constraint has been abysmal; can you imagine how bad it would get if it were completely deregulated, as Senator Cisneros proposed?

While Qwest continues to seek rate increases - both openly acknowledged rate increases and hidden price hikes, as in the case of HB 107 - it has failed to provide service to rural New Mexicans, and at the same time reduced its costs by reducing service quality, refusing to expand service areas and laying off employees.

Rather than rubber-stamping the price hikes and deregulation demands issued by Qwest’s lobbyists, it's time for our legislature and Public Regulatory Commission to hold Qwest's feet to the fire. Obviously Qwest must be forced to deliver the $200 million dollars’ worth of telecommunications upgrades it contracted to provide over a decade ago. 

How else can the rural citizens of New Mexico ever hope to bridge the "digital divide"?

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