KUNM

Co-Ops Bridge The Digital Divide In Rural N.M.

Apr 5, 2018

Quality internet service is key to overcoming poverty, according to studies worldwide. But all over the U.S., people of color and folks with low incomes are less likely to have access to an affordable, reliable connection. Plus, big corporations are often unwilling to lay line through tough terrain without a lot of customers.

Installer Technician Sidney Trujillo pulled a heavy-duty orange bag from the back of the Kit Carson Co-Op company pickup. "As you can tell, everything is heavy in this bag," he said.

The nonprofit has been providing all of the electricity in the area for 74 years. That’s common in rural areas. There are more than 900 consumer-owned utility nonprofits in the United States. Kit Carson was one of the first to try and figure out how to provide Internet, too. That’s what Trujillo does.

When trucks with lifts can’t get to a utility pole—maybe because the terrain is too rough, or the roads are bad during rain or snow—Trujillo uses spikes to climb to the top with a fiber-optic splicer. "Ten thousand dollars if you drop that machine, and it’s on you."

Sidney Trujillo shows the gear he uses to climb utility polls.
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Leather straps wrapped around his calf, anchoring a metal spike that shoots out from the side of his boot. "This is what we strap to our boots," he said. "This is the spike that’ll dig into the poll. You gaff in."

Installation techs have to get creative to bring fiber-optic cable out to remote homes and villages in the area. Helicopters had to fly the line across the 800-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge and to some mountain peaks.

But this day's job was easier. It was sunny out, and the breeze was mild, for one. No climbing necessary. "I like it," he said. "Keeps me about as busy as what the mine did."

Trujillo worked at the Chevron mine in Questa for almost two decades, until about 300 people were laid off and it shut down for good. He makes a lot less at Kit Carson, he says, but he’s got to pay the bills, and he’s glad to have work.

Taos County is home to both wealthy folks who buy their second house near the popular resorts and tourist destinations, and lifelong residents in rural areas that face job loss and declining wages.

Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes recalled that years ago, co-op members said they needed more than just electricity. They needed jobs. "Young people are leaving here because there’s no opportunities," he said, "and so we’re trying to fill in those gaps of giving all Taoseños—or the people we serve—opportunities to really create a good living environment here."

Reyes was born and raised in Taos. And he doesn’t want to see entire generations leave. 

"What occurs is sometimes these entities don’t offer services to everyone," he said of telecom corporations. "Kit Carson took the position that we have an obligation to serve. So if you’re low-income or well-off, we still have the same obligation to serve you.

Becoming an internet service provider required a shift in thinking—a shift that Reyes argued speaks to why these co-ops were created. "I think what happens is we forget why we’re here in the first place," he said. "We weren’t here really to deliver electricity. That was a method to create jobs and to enhance the quality of life of rural people during the depression. And I think we forgot that."

It took three tries, but eventually the co-op got a massive federal grant—44 million dollars—and a big loan to start the project. They’ve connected 6,300 members so far. For a couple of years, applicants could get their houses hooked up to the network for free. Now there’s a substantial fee, and the waitlist is 12,000 deep.

Traci Chavez McAdams
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Traci Chavez McAdams lives in the Pot Creek area of Taos, backed up right against the mountains and next to a river. "We were on satellite service for many many years, paid a lot of  money every month and had very little internet service," she said.

Neighbors would try to do online business at midnight, she said, when there were fewer other people online nearby. She rallied her neighbors and they met with Kit Carson, which laid line right up to their houses.

"It has changed dramatically," she said. "Because there are times that my children don’t have school. My husband can work directly from home, dial into work, and he’s still as if he’s in the office. And I don’t have to be worried about who’s going to watch them, where I’m going to leave them. Or I can stay home, and I can work from home."

In a bigger sense, though, Chavez McAdams said, Taos and the surrounding area are more connected to the rest of the world.

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KUNM co-reported that story with Leah Todd, a reporter with the Solutions Journalism Network. These stories are part of the “State of Change” project produced in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network and other newsrooms around New Mexico.