LOVINGTON — Elusive high-speed internet access garnered the attention of Lea County Commission members at Thursday’s regular commission meeting.
Medical communication, police body camera recordings and COVID-19-related school restrictions highlighted lack of broadband in rural areas throughout the nation, including in southern Lea County where Leaco Rural Telephone Cooperative Inc. and City of Jal officials propose a project loosely valued at about $4.5 million.
Leaco, with Jal Mayor Stephen Aldridge and City Manager Matt White, pitched a planned project Thursday for extending broadband service deep into southern Lea County, starting with an extension of fiber optic lines west of Hobbs to the Lea County Regional Airport and beyond.
Aldridge told the commissioners more than two-thirds of the needed funding already had been committed by Jal’s schools, hospital district and city governments, but additional funds were needed.
“We have a firm commitment for $3.5 million,” Aldridge said. “The schools committed to $1.5 million. The hospital district committed $1.5 million, and the city, $500,000.”
But the perceived advantages to the rest of southern Lea County prompted a proposal that the county government may wish to commit the remainder of the costs.
According to Leaco CEO David Jimenez, the route chosen would take a fiber optic transmission line west of Hobbs, then through Monument, to the southern area of Eunice then south to Jal, providing high-speed internet to hundreds of existing residences and businesses.
“Fiber is the solution. It’s the end game that everybody wants to get to, eventually,” Jimenez said, acknowledging wireless service is cheaper but less resilient. Jimenez referenced a statement from an AT&T official noting that company intends to eventually move to fiber optics, which last decades with fewer overload issues than wireless transmission.
The Jal mayor, who also is the community’s hospital board chairman, said he had been trying to obtain broadband for his city residents and businesses for about three years.
“We know what the future looks like and it doesn’t look good without broadband connectivity,” Aldridge said.
Jimenez said Leaco and the City of Jal partnered about two-and-a-half years ago in an effort to provide broadband services, but reached speed bumps they’ve been unable to surmount.
Although for two years running, Jal’s and Leaco’s applications for federal funds were rejected, Jimenez said the federal government now has committed billions of dollars to rural broadband to be coming down the line through state agencies in the next year or so.
However, with every small community and county in the country seeking to latch onto those federal funds, the costs for both equipment and labor are rapidly increasing, Jimenez said, already more than 65 percent higher than estimates made two years ago.
White urged sooner rather than later decision-making.
“We’re at the point where this has been shovel-ready for two years,” White said. “We’re ready to go out for bid with it. We just need a little more help.”
After Commissioner Jonathan Sena asked just how much help is needed, White suggested $1.1 million to $1.4 million, depending on what the costs do.
Commissioner Pat Sims, in whose district most of the project extends, said he has been in conversations concerning broadband and foresees advantages for businesses.
“Looking at this project, I see the potential for bringing in a lot more businesses on that route, especially west of Hobbs and south of Eunice,” Sims said. “There’s a potential to increase our business in Lea County.”
Meanwhile, Commission Chairman Dean Jackson also supported the concept of expanding broadband in the county, and praised homegrown Leaco, which Jimenez pointed out has been in business since 1954, for the company’s interest in improving quality of life for the community.
“I think this is a very worthwhile project to get Lea County up into the 21st Century,” Jackson said. “We’ve all been frustrated with what happens on the internet. … This is a no-brainer. … It’s a very worthwhile project for us to invest in.”
After County Manager Mike Gallagher asked about the broadband needs of residents living the northern part of the county, from Lovington to Tatum and outlying areas, Jimenez noted several areas where fiber optics already are installed and areas where grants have been approved.
While commissioners responded positively to the presentation, the discussion resulted in no decision at that meeting since no specific resolution had been on the agenda.