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2014 Intermediate MMJ

Digital divide widest in New Mexico

Rural, poor state ranks last in home Internet access

ALBUQUERQUE- In New Mexico, an estimated 28 percent of residents lack home Internet access.

A U.S. Census study places New Mexico last among the 50 states in the number of individuals that can get online at home.

Researchers point to a lack of investment in infrastructure by Internet providers, affordability and little perceived value in having Internet access, as the main reasons New Mexico has the fewest Internet and broadband subscriptions in the country.  

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The New Mexico Broadband Map allows residents to find what Internet services are available to them in any part of the state.

Currently in New Mexico, residents may purchase satellite, dial-up, and broadband Internet for their homes, but not everyone has all those choices. In many parts of the state, Internet connections via satellite are the only option available. And for many, costs are a barrier.

For everyday folks,  a daily struggle to connect

There are 17 public libraries, 34 McDonald fast food restaurants, and 30 Starbucks coffee shops in Albuquerque — all equipped with free Internet access. For the estimated 28 percent of New Mexicans living without home Internet access, places like these are a lifeline.

Diana Tarín is part of that 28% percent.

Diana Tarín Interview Excerpt

It’s 5 p.m. and rush hour on the streets of Albuquerque. As most workers are driving home, Tarín is rushing to the South Valley Public Library. It closes at 6 p.m.

“When I know I have to do things online, that’s when I know to take my laptop to either work or sometimes skip the gym and go straight to the library.” said Tarín.

She’s a part-time student at Central New Mexico Community College, and a receptionist at First Choice Community Health Care clinic. It is often at her job where she slips out her laptop during her lunch break to connect to her office’s free Wi-Fi. Tarín tries to do homework, pay bills, or check accounts that require Internet access — but the lunch hour often isn’t enough time to complete everything.

Reasons New Mexicans can’t, won’t or don’t connect

The University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research developed a study titled ‘Broadband Subscription and Internet Use in New Mexico’, funded by the New Mexico Department of Information and Technology, concerning Internet access in the state.

Researchers found that 54% percent of New Mexicans surveyed reported affordability, no computer, or the cost of Internet service as the most common barriers to connectivity.

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Stated reasons for Non-Adoption of Home Internet. Source: UNM BBER Survey of internet adoption and use in New Mexico, 2012

Jeffrey Mitchell, the Senior Researcher on the Broadband Subscription study, found that income does tend to be strongly associated with Internet access.

Of the 50 United States, New Mexico ranks second in population living below the poverty line — 21% percent.

Mitchell says a major finding within his study is that households located in more densely settled or urbanized environments are more likely to have access to the internet. His study states, “For the 20% who live in the most densely settled areas, 85% have internet access. Of those living in the least dense environments, only 66% of households
have internet access.”

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Stated reasons for non adoption of home Internet by geography. Source: UNM BBER Survey of internet adoption and use in New Mexico, 2012

According to UNM’s Broadband Access Study, non-subscribers tend to be:

  • older (especially 65 years of age and older)
  • have lower incomes (especially less than $15,000 annually)
  • are neither a full time student or employed
  • describe their ethnicity as Native American, Hispanic, or ‘other’
  • live in an area they describe as rural

A “literate, informed” citizenry at stake 

In New Mexico, 43 percent of the population is made up of low-income families that work. Half the counties in the state have a poverty rate of 20% or more. Rural life and poverty are a common combination. According to UNM’s Broadband Access study, 54 percent of people surveyed stated no computer or the cost of Internet service as reasons for lack of at-home access.

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Rey Garduño, City Councilor for District 6 in Albuquerque. (Photo: Kim Jew Photography for the City of Albuquerque)

“If we’re interested in having literate, informed, engaged, and a forward thinking society, individuals, and citizenry then we have to make that (Internet) available.” said, Rey Garduño, City Councilor for District 6 in Albuquerque.

“There are pockets of poverty, and non-service, both Internet and other kinds of services…but we can’t hide behind that anymore, we know that this information, this ability we should afford everyone in this part of the world.” said, Garduño who represents the city’s International District.

“If we’re interested in having literate, informed, engaged and a forward thinking society… then we have to make (the Internet) available.”

– Rey Garduño, City Councilor

The majority of Albuquerque’s foreign residents live in the South East Heights. Garduño says, “Some of those folks come here already knowing what services there are, but when they get to that point (of no Internet connection) they almost get thrown back into a third world existence.”

Rey Garduño Interview Excerpt

Garduño explained that there had been hopes in city government to create a fiber optic “spine” down Central Ave. allowing for free Internet connections to residents throughout the city. But, he said, those talks are no longer on the table. Garduño said the idea fizzled with the change in leadership of the city. Ex-mayor of Albuquerque, Martin Chavez was a strong proponent of city wide Internet before leaving office.

People fighting for access and skills

Emmanuelle Leal is the Media Justice Organizer at Media Literacy Project in Albuquerque.

“We whole-heartedly believe that having access to reliable and affordable Internet service is a right that people need and that people should have all across the country,” said Leal. “No matter if you live in a big city, in a rural community, in a tribal, community, whether you speak Spanish or whatever other language that you have a right to those types of sources.”

“…affordable Internet service is a right.”

– Emmanuelle Leal, Media Literacy Project

During his community organizing work, Leal has witnessed many people looking to learn how to connect to the cyber world.

“The people that I talk to who are going to computer classes at Encuentro who are learning about how to use a computer, there’s such an intense and immense need and want to learn those technologies,” said, Leal.

He credits the need to communicate with family long distance, and government and businesses going paperless as key reasons why adults are searching for ways to learn how to navigate online.

Computer skill courses are taught at CNM, the Albuquerque public libraries, and in Spanish at Encuentro for Duke City residents. The community organizing and adult education center, Encuentro, in downtown Albuquerque hosts computer classes for beginners and intermediate skilled learners in Spanish.

Their distinct approach is designed to reach working adults who are primarily Spanish speakers and want to be come digitally literate. Most of Encuentro’s students are migrants and have become aware of the need to hone computer skills.

Sonia Medina is the instructor for the Spanish computer courses at Encuentro. She says that most of her students cases are unique as to what really brings them to class, but that in general it’s for self improvement and from the obligation they feel from society to take part in the digital world.

Sonia Medina Interview Excerpt (in Spanish)

“Now a days it’s not as if you’re given a piece of paper to apply for a job, or given papers to fill in your kids schools,” said Medina. “Really, now you’re given a website to where you need to go. Then that becomes difficult for them (spanish students), very much so… so then it’s not about something they’re asking for, but that the system is pressuring them to do.”

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Many people in Albuquerque with no at home Internet access must find businesses that provide Wi-Fi . (Photo: Natalia Jácquez)

Leal says that as business and government go paperless, low-income residents require home Internet access.

“When I can no longer apply for a governmental program on paper, now I have to apply online and yet I don’t have a computer or access to the Internet — that puts a big wall between that individual and this needed service,” said, Leal.

“In New Mexico we are still at access, our gente are still at access, we cannot and will not lose sight of that fact.” 

Then there’s apathy . . .

UNM Research Scientist Mitchell said one troubling factor involved in the digital divide in New Mexico is disinterest.

“We asked a question, ‘How much would you be willing to pay in order to have access?’ And the majority of the people who did not have access said that they’d be unwilling to pay even $5 dollars a month.” said, Mitchell.

Valuing a secure and constant Internet connection apparently isn’t top of mind for some residents, explained Mitchell. Even a small price didn’t seem worthwhile to many who were surveyed.

“In simple terms,” his study concludes, “one is either engaged in the digital world or one is not, and there is little evidence that those who are not engaged are much concerned to overcome the divide.”

Mitchell suggests that outreach and education in the community could solve this problem.

Natalia Jácquez is a double major in Spanish Language and Multimedia Journalism at the University of New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter: @NJcquez

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