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Albuquerque’s Artistic Approach to Fiber

Described as “the urban center of New Mexico,” Albuquerque has unique economic drivers, with the city’s website citing space technology, directed energy – not exactly something you find on a typical municipality resume – smart community technologies, and film and digital media among its strengths. A place where science and art freely mix, the city’s attractions include the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History and the backdrop to many popular TV shows and movies. 

The city has taken a similarly diverse approach to the different types of licensing agreements it has put in place for fiber. “We want to encourage full market coverage, competition, and availability. We have four license agreements for fiber for the city,” said Mark Leech, Director, Technology and Innovation (CIO) for the City of Albuquerque. “There’s a combination that covers different parts of the city with different business models. Some are supplying end-to-end fiber to the home and businesses. Others are putting fiber into the ground for an open access network, contracting out the last mile to others.”

Albuquerque hosts a vibrant arts community, hosting such events as the annual Balloon Fiesta. (Source: Vexus Fiber)

Albuquerque’s current economic base, anticipated growth, and dearth of fiber is attracting interest from numerous firms, including the privately-financed Gigapower open access fiber network provider, which is building projects in cities around the country. “One of our missions is to bring fiber to markets that really don’t have it. We feel we can bridge that gap and provide a different class of service than what they have today,” said Tom Kearney, Chief Operating Officer, Gigapower. “There’s definitely a need to be in that market to augment and provide different classes of service.”

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History are just as tied to Albuquerque’s history and culture as its vibrant art scene. (Source: Doug Mohney)

Vexus Fiber, which has committed to covering 97% of the city, also sees a bright future for the city.
“The prospects of Albuquerque from an economic development perspective are just continuing to grow,” stated Kevin Folk, Regional Vice President of Operations Southwest, Vexus Fiber. “Intel is a big presence here. You’ve got Sandia Labs, the Air Force base, solar companies looking to move here. There are a lot of huge things. It brings more workers to the city that require better, higher quality [internet] connections.”

Currently Albuquerque has what Leech describes as an “adequate” standard of broadband, but notes that different parts of the city have been skipped over due to geographic and economic reasons. “We’ve got digital deserts, with no infrastructure there,” said Leech. “There are pockets all over the place. If you think about the whole of Albuquerque as a piece of chart paper, we have areas that are red squares without coverage, yellow squares that have more than one incumbent, and green is the best broadband we can provide. We want to cover Albuquerque in green.”

The lack of broadband in parts of the city is not only a macro concern to city officials but also one that affects city operations in a rapidly growing municipality. As the city purchases older properties and puts up new buildings as the government develops, selling off older properties they’ve outgrown, having broadband everywhere is vital to ensuring the IT needs of departments moving into their new facilities. 

Fiber is used in many typical ways by the city and to support some unique applications as well, tying back to the city’s embrace of the arts. “Within our portfolio, we provide fiber for traffic management for stoplights,” said Leech. “There’s an increasing push for our smart community efforts, that’s more about putting cameras in high-crime areas. We may have locations that have one connection and need to support six cameras. We’re working closely with law enforcement for those needs at that point.”


Various wireless services utilized by the city, including the LoRaWAN® Internet of Things protocol, generic Wi-Fi, and CBRS services to provide bridging connectivity to Wi-Fi hotspots are all supported by city fiber that it owns or, more typically, is leased from a third-party. Connectivity will follow around the city’s bus lines and a seven-mile urban Rail Trail designed to link Albuquerque’s downtown area to nearby neighborhoods, cultural destinations, entertainment districts, and its historic Rail Yards. One area where fiber isn’t going are the city’s arroyos, dry gullies outside the city that quickly fill with fast moving water when it rains, leading to flash floods that can endanger people and property. 

“We will use the fiber along the Rail Trail to monitor things like pedestrian flows, smart trash cans, and enable art being created through a collaboration with Central New Mexico Community College,” said Leech. “I’m really excited about the collaboration. We’re on our third cohort of artists. We put artists through IoT classes, and they build art that incorporates it. We put the pieces on the Rail Trail or in our city art gallery. It supports Albuquerque’s thriving and vibrant art community.”

Multi-state service provider Vexus Fiber believes in Albuquerque’s current and future potential, as well as that of the surrounding areas. The company is putting $250 million into covering the city, along with another $50 million going into the town of Santa Fe, roughly an hour’s drive north, and plans to expand to the adjacent township of Rio Rancho directly northeast. Albuquerque will be the company’s largest build to date, passing its projects in Texas and Louisiana. 

“This is going to be a five-, six-year build. Albuquerque has about 360,000 homes,” said Folk. “Our commitment to the city is 97% of the homes passed, so we’re talking 350,000 homes. We’ve already got over 2,000 homes passed and we are anticipating a ramp up of our construction activities to be in multiple locations throughout the city at the same time. Our goal is 20,000 homes passed by the end of the year, and we’ve already started our project planning for the next year.”

Vexus Fiber has been working with the city government for several years, obtaining its license two years ago and trying to smooth out the various requirements it needed in order to move forward with construction, including the volume of permits it needs as it increases its construction tempo.

“Albuquerque is a little bit different than some other markets that we operate in,” said Folk, compared to the company’s operations in Louisiana and Texas. “A lot more restrictions, permitting requirements. The city has had to figure out a permitting approval process with the amount of workload that we’re bringing to them and how they work. That took a little bit of time, it took a little bit longer as well with pole attachment permits.”

The service provider is deploying a combination of underground and aerial fiber, working with energy provider PNM for pole access in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. “In Albuquerque, we’ll be on 40,000 poles,” said Folk. “That’s a lot of work for a company to ingest that resource load into their system. 

“We’re also very conscious of the impact [our construction] has on the city’s resources as well as the residents. We’re not tearing up roadways, we’re doing boring as well as aerial work, but it does have an impact on the communities, in the neighborhoods where we work. You’ve got to be mindful of that, we’re very conscious of that impact because you know, where we’re building these are potential customers for us.” 

Folk anticipates that Vexus will create around 150 new permanent jobs in Albuquerque and the company is now working to establish partnerships with community institutions and the larger businesses in town, such as Intel, NBC/Universal, Netflix, and Amazon, along with the Mesa del Sol master-planned community of 30,000 homes being built in the southeast corner of the city. 

However, Vexus faces a well-funded challenge from Gigapower, jointly owned and governed by AT&T and BlackRock investment management group. “We’re making a several hundred-million-dollar investment in the market,” said Kearney. “We keep it open-ended, but it’s close to several hundred million in Albuquerque holistically. Our minimum commitment to the city is to service 150,000 homes and businesses while constantly evaluating opportunities to increase and add to our build plan.”

Gigapower will offer services up to 8 Gbps symmetrical services initially using XGS-PON with the ability to scale upward to a minimum of 25 Gbps in the future. Construction will include a mixture of aerial and underground fiber deployment, leveraging PNM’s network of electric utility poles where available to increase speed to market. 

Access to PNM utility poles in Albuquerque and the surrounding region is key for deployment of fiber in the area. (Source: Vexus Fiber)

Kearney said Gigapower is very far along in its initial engineering and construction plans and expects to start breaking ground and placing fiber this summer. “We’re working side by side with the city, PNM, and other municipal partners for permitting.” 

Gigapower has two unique characteristics in its fiber builds in Albuquerque and other cities. First, it is an open access commercial wholesale provider and AT&T is its anchor tenant.  “We’ve had conversations with dozens and dozens of ISPs that are interested in partnering with us and we’ve had discussions with various service providers.” 

Other announced areas and cities Gigapower is competitively building out are Las Vegas; Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa, Arizona; parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania, including Scranton and Wilkes-Barre; and parts of Alabama and Florida outside of AT&T’s current service areas, with company officials suggesting more announcements would be forthcoming in the future. 

Vexus says it is ready for competition in Albuquerque and feels some providers will not be able to deliver. “There are some big challenges for city resources as you bring more competition. You have four to five providers that want to build their own network of attachments to the poles, that means somebody’s going to miss out,” Folk said, with Vexus having an advantage by being first in the market for a city-wide build and working with local officials to scale up the permitting processes. “We feel that with our customer engagement, customer service, local technicians, and local footprint, we can compete against the big boys.”