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Santa Fe aims to improve broadband, cell coverage

The chief executive of Descartes Labs, a buzzy tech startup expanding its footprint at a new headquarters on Guadalupe Street, instead uses a video-conferencing application or desk phone in current office on Paseo de Peralta.

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A cell signal eludes Mark Johnson in his downtown office.

The chief executive of Descartes Labs, a buzzy tech startup expanding its footprint at a new headquarters on Guadalupe Street, instead uses a video-conferencing application or desk phone in current office on Paseo de Peralta.

“That’s suboptimal,” Matt Brown, the city’s economic development director, deadpanned last week.

But a wave of new telecom infrastructure is en route, and in a city where famously spotty cellular and internet service has long bedeviled 21st century businesses, residents and tourists alike, there’s optimism Santa Fe will soon turn the great connectivity corner.

A raft of telecommunication franchise agreements are coming down the city’s legislative pike; the resulting network expansions in the city’s public rights of way could eventually provide Santa Feans with faster speeds, broader coverage and additional retail competition — and thus lower costs, according to city fiscal analyses.

“This is our biggest and best opportunity in many years,” said Brown.

Around the signal, however, there will be noise, as the outspoken cadre of local residents who say cellular radiation poses a grave health risk are likely to protest the proposed agreements when they appear before the City Council in early May.

“If they pass this, we will lose control of our streets and sidewalks,” said Arthur Firstenberg, the outspoken local advocate against electromagnetic radiation. “To us, this is a mortal threat. It will injure people. It will kill people. We will have no more honeybees. We will have no more birds.”

The proposed ordinances generally establish new access rights to the public right of way for telephone and internet service providers, whether with cables or antennas.

They follow a tweak to city law approved last year that eased access for such companies — an arcane smoothing of permitting processes that nonetheless drew impassioned condemnations from the anti-wireless activist bloc of Santa Feans, as well as some residents who were concerned about the debatable aesthetic effects of antennas on top of light poles.

All the same, the new telecom right-of-way changes earned the unanimous support of the City Council, as it both aligned with the city’s renewed emphasis on improved connectivity for economic development aims and accommodated federal law, which obligates the city to allow “non-discriminatory access” in public rights of way to telecom carriers.

State law also has changed, with a newly approved Wireless Consumer and Advanced Infrastructure Act that establishes new access and regulation rules for small cellular facilities on public infrastructure.

Per its proposed agreement with the city, NMSURF, a local provider, would provide fiber-to-the-premises internet to residences and businesses at ultra-fast gigabit speeds. Alisha Catanach, a company spokesperson, said its first phase would reach as many as 500 businesses and homes.

Cyber Mesa and Plateau Telecommunications would be permitted to use the city right of way for their telecommunication services, according to their proposed agreements. Conterra Ultra Broadband, a telecommunication provider based in Charlotte, N.C., would construct a fiber-optic network connecting public schools to the Santa Fe school district’s central office, with the option to expand to other businesses, schools and organization.

The fifth franchise arrangement, with a Broadband Network of New Mexico, meanwhile, would allow that company to install new poles in public rights of way and lease space there to others’ antennas and fiber-optic cable, according to a city fiscal write-up.

“What that means for our system overall is we increase resilience,” Brown said, adding that the city sought to mirror the terms in the new state law.

The Broadband Network franchise, of the five, should “provide the greatest near-term improvement” of connectivity, said City Councilor Mike Harris, who sponsored the five franchise proposals.

But “all of the franchisees should add to the efficiency of telecom services in our city over time,” Harris added.

The movement is drawing favorable responses from some who keep a close eye on the effect mediocre connectivity has had on Santa Fe business, tourism and everyday life.

“We favor a public-private partnership around broadband and wireless, and I think that’s what’s happening,” said Simon Brackley of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. “The city is meeting with the providers to determine how to create the most competitive and reliable service throughout the community. There’s definitely optimism.”

At least one local telecom company representative, who asked not to be identified so as not to jeopardize the company’s relationship with the city, questioned the City Hall sales pitch.

“This whole business of, ‘It’s going to benefit Santa Fe by increasing competition and getting more fiber in the ground,’ well, that’s purely a justification to impose the franchise fee,” the representative said, a reference to a 2 percent imposition on the companies’ gross charges included in each of the city’s proposed agreements.

City memos show the revenue from franchise fees is unknown but is expected to be minimal and decline “as new competition lowers the retail rates on which most of the fees are based.” The Broadband Network agreement will require one-time and annual franchise fees depending on the number of poles installed and the number of antennas co-located there.

“We are absolutely not doing this because it is somehow an opportunity for the city to try to generate more revenues,” Brown said. “We are advocating and supporting the passage of these five franchises because we think it will service those strategic goals: greater reliability, greater broadband access across our whole city and particularly in those areas that are currently underserved, and creating a greater competitions landscape to drive down costs. We expect that to happen.”

Of course, in Santa Fe, there are those who hope it won’t.

Firstenberg — alongside fellow plaintiffs Monika Steinhoff and the Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety — filed a federal lawsuit against the city earlier this year. It contends the city’s recent telecommunication ordinance changes, as well as former Mayor Javier Gonzales’ emergency proclamation allowing temporary Verizon installations, should be struck down as they violate the constitutional rights of residents who claim sensitivities to radio frequencies.

The lawsuit claimed such residents “will no longer be safe in their homes, at work, or while traveling on the public streets,” and that homes and businesses will be rendered “uninhabitable and unusable.”

A senior U.S. judge dismissed the complaint earlier this month. Firstenberg said he is investigating an appeal.

The five franchise agreements are scheduled to come before the City Council for public hearings May 9.

“We are raising the alarm,” Firstenberg said. But, he added, referring to last year’s ordinance change, and the court dismissal, “A lot of people are discouraged.”

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