Thanks to a partnership with the world’s largest social media company and a socially-conscious internet provider, hundreds of under-served Valencia County families will have free, reliable broadband internet in the near future.

During a press event at the Los Lunas Facebook Data Center Wednesday morning, Valencia County IT director Tesa Mast announced the award of a $225,000 grant from Facebook that will kick off a pilot project to provide wireless internet for up to 900 households in disadvantaged communities on the county’s east side.

How it began

At a Valencia County Commission meeting in September, a root-top agreement with Lokket Inc. — a wireless internet provider based in Sausalito, Calif. — was unanimously approved by the commission.

The cooperative effort is the result of months of work by Mast and county staff looking for a way to provide broadband service to areas in what’s known as the “last mile” of service, remote areas providers don’t want to build out to due to cost.

“When we started, we were looking at fire stations that didn’t have reliable connectivity. That was about the same time as the (American Rescue Plan Act) funds began coming available and we keyed in on broadband infrastructure as one of the key roles,” Mast said.

After contacting several internet companies to find out how much it would cost to build out their infrastructure to county fire stations, Mast said the cost was just too high.

“Then we said, ‘What if we survey people and find out if they are happy with their internet? That would give (the companies) business,’” she said. “They looked at the information but the build out was still too high.”

As Mast and Jeremias Silva, the county’s grant writer, explored the use of ARPA funds, they were encouraged to collaborate with other local government agencies, Mast said.

Making connections

During a meeting of local agencies, Mike Good, the director of IT operations for Los Lunas Schools, mentioned an internet provider the district was having conversations with — Lokket.

“There’s not an official agreement with Lokket at this time,” Good said. “Our attorneys are reviewing the rooftop agreement.”

Good heard about Lokket from staff at the New Mexico Public Education Department and Public Schools Finance Administration, who have been working on broadband services for the last three years.

Right now, there is a very small wireless pilot project at Valencia High School, Good said, and if the rooftop agreement is approved by the Los Lunas Schools Governing Committee, the hope is to serve more people.

“We want to provide more and faster service,” he said. “Right now, we have students in our digital academy using Tmobile hotspots, which have limited bandwidth.”

Using a wireless service wasn’t Mast’s first choice, she said.

“I was not totally sold. I wanted to run coax and cable, but that costs a whole lot of money,” she said. “Then we met with Lokket and I was blown away when they gave their presentation on the purpose of their project.

“What they want to do is build their network. We have an agreement with them to put their tower on our building — the El Cerro Community Center — and people will purchase their equipment for their homes. The service is free.”

Lokket requires a small external satellite and a modem inside a home to provide service, which costs about $250 per home, Mast said, but the grant from Facebook will be used to help families overcome that financial hurdle.

“Their general service is free to anyone who can purchase the equipment,” she said. “(Lokket) is focusing on rural areas that are under served, so this isn’t going to put other vendors out of business.”

While the basic tier of service is free, Mast said there are faster speeds consumers can upgrade to. As the project advances and more county-owned facilities become equipped with distribution antennas, the stronger the internet signal will be.

“I think their fastest level is less than $50 a month. I’m assuming that’s how they are going to make money,” she said. “This agreement we have with them is not exclusive. We aren’t paying them a dime.”

The tower on the community center could reach up to 50 miles, Mast said.

Facebook steps up

As the agreement with Lokket was being finalized, Facebook reached out to the county, wanting to get involved.

“They were looking for ways to benefit the residents of the county. We initially asked for $200,000 and they awarded us $225,000,” Mast said. “By the beginning of the year, we will have an application process that will focus on people in the most under-served areas, lower income areas, to help them pay for the Lokket equipment.”

When the county did its survey looking at residents’ satisfaction with their internet provider, if they had one, Mast said a large number of respondents wanted service so they could use tele-medicine services, rather than driving long distances to see a doctor.

“We had 451 respondents and 80 percent of them said internet services had a great deal of impact on their day-to-day life,” she said. “This is a good thing for the county. If other providers see what companies are willing to offer, it might motivate them. The problem of not having connectivity isn’t just the county, it’s across the state.”

Lokket CEO and co-founder George Kaloudis said the company mostly works with school districts, recently deploying wireless internet in Santa Fe and Socorro public school districts.

“We’ve been doing research in digital divide issues and in that, noticed New Mexico in general had a number of issues with connectivity,” Kaloudis said. “We have been working with Los Lunas Schools for a while now, we’re talking to the Belen schools, and we’re working with the NMPED as part of a statewide strategy to get as many kids and families connected as possible.”

Working for digital equity

The CEO said Lokket is predominately focused on affordability, access and digital equity.

“Our business model is driven by working with partners and built around a pseudo franchise model. We work with communities to build infrastructure and a customer base, work with local entrepreneurs and let them take over.”

In terms of their basic wireless service, Kaloudis said it’s sufficient for web browsing, online meetings and streaming. Those who are high-end gamers or business users most likely won’t find the free tier satisfactory, he said.

“We are looking for an affordable price point. You have great companies doing amazing work out here, but when (the service) is $80 to $100 a month, the infrastructure might be there but it’s still out of reach,” he said.

David Williams, the community development manager at Facebook, said the company is committed to playing a positive role in Los Lunas and Valencia County, the data center’s home, and investing in the community’s long-term vitality.

“… internet access is a necessity. This is especially true in our rural communities. Recent census data shows that 83 percent of households in Valencia County have a computer, however only 58 percent of those households have an internet subscription,” Williams said. “Valencia County’s proposal — in collaboration with Lokket, Inc. — to begin to bridge this divide in underserved areas, stood out for it’s focus on access and affordability.”

Williams encouraged nonprofit organizations and schools in Valencia County to apply for their annual Community Action Grants, or reach out to him at [email protected].

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.