Ethos Broadband, a subsidiary of Sacred Wind Communications, which has been working in Sierra County to bring broadband to all residents south of Williamsburg, must notify and obtain right-of-way permission from 1,400 potential broadband customers before the Bureau of Land Management will grant a permit to begin construction of the necessary fiber optics network.
A full-time and a part-time team, each consisting of a notary public and an easement specialist, are currently working to satisfy the BLM requirement, Misti Willock, SWC’s director of sales and strategic partnerships, told the Sun.
Urvashi Bhakta, field contract supervisor for Ethos, is a leader of one of those teams. Over the last month, Bhakta has traveled throughout the southern part of the county, collecting residents’ signatures granting permission to add a cable to a pole or bury a cable on their properties. According to the Ethos website: “This will make it possible to connect your home to our fiber network at a later date if you choose to use our services.” If digging is required later to install a cable, Ethos “will not leave a mess,” Willock pledged.
Ethos will make three attempts to obtain signatures in person. In addition, the company is sending letters to out-of-town property owners, informing them of the need to grant right-of-way permission if they wish to utilize broadband in the future without incurring the expense of bringing a line onto their properties. Willock advised owners of undeveloped parcels to grant permission now if they wish to be eligible for future service.
For those who do not want to wait until they are contacted, the right-of-way permission form can be obtained by calling Ethos at 833-650-0480. Property owners must have their signatures notarized before the completed form is returned to Ethos. Forms can also be notarized and turned in at the Elephant Butte office of Sierra Electric Cooperative, which is partnering with SCW by allowing use of its electric poles for stringing fiber optics cables.
According to the Ethos website, granting right-of-way permission does not commit property owners to sign up for high-speed internet service, but does entitle them to free installation when the service becomes available—saving them $500 or more, according to Willock.
The Sierra County broadband project started after SWC successfully bid to bring broadband to the public schools in Arrey and Garfield, using E-Rate funds the schools had received through the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Since Arrey is not served by Sierra Electric Co-op, SWC is burying the school’s fiber optics cables along Highway 187’s public right of way.
Arrey and Garfield schools will manage their own internet services, which should be up and running by June, according to Ethos field supervisor Bhakta. Ethos will then begin work to provide internet access to residents of those villages, using the existing “backbone” of the schools’ conduits.
While working on this project, SWC became aware of significant broadband issues throughout the county. Residents’ anecdotal accounts of slow internet access was confirmed by the county’s broadband strategic plan, which was based on speed tests that showed local service was of significantly poorer quality than various internet providers had reported to the government. “We observed almost immediately,” noted Findley Engineering and CCG Consulting, the firms that prepared the strategic plan, “that the county has some of the worst broadband conditions we’ve witnessed anywhere.”
SWC was subsequently awarded a ReConnect grant from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and a matching grant from the New Mexico Department of Information Technology to support construction of a broadband network south of Williamsburg.
Enhancement of internet accessibility in the rest of the county is still in the early stages. The FCC held a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction in November 2020. Auction winners will receive federal funds over 10 years to help subsidize the construction of broadband networks providing download speeds of at least 25 Mbps (megabits per second) in underserved parts of the country. The RDOF does not grant the winners the sole right to provide service in a certain area; it simply excludes other providers in that area from receiving FCC funding.
Two companies won bids to expand their networks into parts of Sierra County.
Resound Networks LLC, which currently provides wireless internet to parts of eastern New Mexico, the Texas panhandle and western Oklahoma, has been granted $2.9 million to connect 683 properties in the county. Windstream, a national telecommunications company operating in 18 states that already provides broadband in Sierra County, has been granted $21,744 to connect 44 additional properties. (To find out if your property is potentially included in these arrangements, go to https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/rdof-phase-i-dec-2020/ and type your physical address in the search box. If your property pops up in a green area on the map, Resound’s or Windstream’s build-out may eventually reach you.)
Ethos placed bids in the RDOF auction for locations in Sierra County, but did not win. Nevertheless, the company, whose name was chosen to reflect a commitment to “working in an ethical manner,” is seeking other sources of funding to expand into remote areas of the county such as Winston, Chloride and Monticello. “A lot [of opportunities for funding] will depend on Biden’s American Rescue Act” and other proposed federal legislation, SWC’s Willock said.
“We aren’t in it to make a lot of money,” she added, “we are working to provide the services where there is the greatest need.”
Ethos plans to rent space in the county soon to house equipment and personnel. The company recently hired Paul Tooley, the former emergency services administrator for Sierra County, to be outside plant supervisor.