Nothing is more irritating than when a smaller, more nimble competitor seems to be getting the best of you. These days, that must to be how leaders in the state's 800-pound gorilla (a.k.a. Albuquerque) must be feeling about their pesky persistent neighbor to the northwest.
First it was Rio Rancho attracting Intel, one of the state's largest and best known companies. Then it was closing the deal on a sports arena and stealing the Scorpions from Albuquerque. And if that wasn't enough, Rio Rancho and Sandoval County provided a huge chunk of money to get a commuter rail connection built in their area, while Albuquerque is still trying to figure out how to make their new Downtown transportation center work for something other than a few busses.
Now, it appears as though Rio Rancho, the little engine that could, may be leading the way and stealing Albuquerque's steam yet again. Rio Rancho is implementing a public-private arrangement for bringing wireless broadband to all of its citizens that will likely become the model for other communities across the state and across the nation. In their ambitious attempts to stay ahead of Albuquerque, Rio Rancho's mayor, Council and city manager have set a goal of leading the state in technology development and economic growth. And they are well on their way to doing it. Whether or not you agree that Rio Rancho will be able to sustain their housing boom, given their limited water, it is admirable how they have become the only city in the state, and one of only a few in the nation, to embrace going 100-percent wireless.
Meanwhile, the state's economic Goliath, Albuquerque, has taken a wait-and-see approach. They have made a few public areas wireless but are “studying” the best plan before going completely wireless. There is an internal debate in Albuquerque city government about the best way to connect the city to the information superhighway. Do we make the city 100-percent wireless through a public-private partnership? Do we use the fiber currently lying beneath most of Downtown and through other key corridors of the city? Do we come up with a system that uses a mix of technologies to give us the most flexibility, even if it is more expensive? These are important questions, but if Albuquerque doesn't move quickly, it may be bringing up the rear, rather than leading the way in the new information economy.
So why go wireless? For one, most experts believe that in five to 10 years most Americans (and most of the developed world) will be using computers (and increasingly handheld personal devices) from remote locations such as trains, busses, parks and coffee shops. If that sounds crazy, ask yourself: Who would have thought cell phones would become so ubiquitous in a mere five years?
While Albuquerque mulls over the best way to bring the Internet to all of its citizens, other cities and towns are taking Rio Rancho's lead. Several cities and counties around the state are considering a similar system. There is also a growing movement to make New Mexico the first 100-percent wireless state. In a state with the fifth largest land mass, and one of the lowest population densities, we need a way to hook people in remote areas up to the Internet. Think of how powerful it would be to have Internet access in the remote areas of the Navajo Nation, or the most rural parts of the state. Suddenly, the so-called digital divide will be bridged, whether it is to take online classes, follow the news, pay bills, shop or do one of the million other things Internet users do every day.
The arguments for a strong public role in providing broadband Internet access to all of the state's citizens are many. For one, it provides a competitive environment for small businesses. Suddenly, small rural New Mexico businesses can get their product marketed and sold despite not having an office in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. In addition, those citizens, towns and tribes that do not have the resources to buy DSL or dialup can access the Internet from their home, school or office. They will be better able to participate in their local, state and national economy, and they will be more informed citizens.
Regardless of the direction the state decides to go in as it assesses its telecommunications future, the need for a comprehensive, statewide broadband network is strong. While the governor decides the best approach, the Rio Rancho model will likely pick up steam in smaller communities across the state. And for my hometown of Albuquerque, the state's largest city and economic center, it's time to get online or log the heck off.