Can Courts Mandate Better Broadband?

There was an interesting legal decision at the end of April 2021 that I didn’t notice at the time. State District Court Judge Matthew Wilson in New Mexico ordered school officials to take steps to provide the needed devices and the broadband connection for students who are forced to attend school remotely. This ruling was made during the deepest part of the pandemic when most schools in New Mexico were shut down.

His ruling was based upon complaints that The New Mexico Public Education Department was not complying with a court decision in the case of Yazzie/Martinez v. the State of New Mexico made in 2018 by Judge Sarah Singleton that ruled that the education clause of the New Mexico State Constitution meant that all New Mexico school students were entitled to have access to programs and services that gave them an equal chance to learn and thrive.

The 2021 decision required public education officials to provide computers and high-speed Internet access to students with no broadband access. This is the only case I know where a court has said students have a right to good broadband.

I think most of the people reading this blog would agree that we ought to have a goal of getting broadband to every school student. Several recent studies have shown that students without home broadband and computers significantly lag behind other students – and these studies were made before the pandemic.

The State hasn’t done anything in reaction to the court ruling, which is not surprising. New Mexico has almost the lowest percentage of broadband coverage in the country. This means there are a huge number of students in the state without broadband access. Ordering the State to somehow fix the last-mile broadband gap seems misplaced when the federal government and the FCC have given lip service to the broadband gap for the last several decades.

Karen Sanchez-Griego,  the Cuba Independent Schools Superintendent decided to tackle the issue directly. The School District has come to an arrangement with Starlink to bring broadband to 450 families in the area. This involves the District paying for the $500 satellite receiver and also the monthly $99 fee per student. I assume the monthly rate will increase due to the recent rate increase announced by Starlink. This is being funded from monies coming from the CAREs and ARPA funding. But it’s hard to imagine that the school district can sustain that level of funding for long, and the big question is what happens when local funding is depleted. Sanchez-Griego is hoping the State will step up to keep the broadband going.

The ultimate fix for New Mexico’s broadband gap is to build the network needed to reach these and other students with no access to home broadband. New Mexico will probably be getting something in the range of $1 billion in funding from the upcoming BEAD grants – and it’s unlikely in a state with so many broadband gaps that this will be enough money to build the needed last-mile infrastructure. The court order assumed that the State would somehow pick up the tab to get broadband to every student.

If solving the broadband gap was as easy as a court order, I’d hope to see a lawsuit in every state with a big broadband gap. However, the fact that the State has not responded to the lawsuit tells you all you need to know. State legislators are not going to easily give into courts telling them they must undertake expensive spending programs. It’s always controversial when such edicts come from the federal government, but state governments are more likely to ignore such an order from a state court.

I must admit that I never thought of the possibility of courts ordering jurisdictions to fix the broadband gap. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard to think that an order from a single judge will free the huge amounts of spending needed to solve the broadband gap. The Cuba Independent School District should be applauded for tackling the issue directly, but their effort doesn’t seem to be sustainable. Let’s hope an ISP in that part of the state is willing to pursue the grant funding to find a permanent broadband solution.

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