Midlands Voices: Legislature has opportunity to boost rural broadband in Nebraska

Small Business
Small Towns

Published in the Omaha World-Herald on March 6, 2021

By Chuck Karpf, board member, Center for Rural Affairs

For nearly half a century, the Center for Rural Affairs has worked toward ensuring a better future for Nebraska’s family farmers and ranchers, new business owners and rural communities. Our work spans from championing small businesses and investing in community development efforts to growing successful family-owned farms and ranches and promoting policies that support rural doctors, clinics, and hospitals.

There is a common thread, however, that runs through all of our initiatives: the need for expanded broadband access to help our rural communities build a better future. Far too many Nebraskans continue to lack access to reliable, high-speed broadband — an overwhelming number of whom live in rural communities. In fact, more than one-third of all rural Nebraskans still lack access to reliable, high-speed broadband, ranking our state below five of our neighbors — Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri — on broadband availability. A lack of broadband access affects all aspects of rural life, from education and health care to business and agriculture.

For example, approximately 25% of students in Nebraska lack the adequate broadband access needed to attend classes and complete their assignments, slipping through the cracks of the “homework gap.” Many in our rural communities have been unable to take advantage of innovative telehealth and telemedicine tools like online medical check-ups, prescription refills, and other services for their health care needs during the pandemic. Our small business owners have faced challenges adjusting to the new digital economy without reliable broadband. And our farmers and ranchers have lacked the technological tools they need to remain competitive in today’s agricultural landscape.

Gov. Pete Ricketts summed it up best when he stated: “We must continue to invest in better broadband coverage so that more Nebraskans have access to fast, reliable internet service. Over 80,000 Nebraska households lack broadband speeds of at least 25/3. The pandemic revealed how impossible work from home or remote education can be for those on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Thankfully, our Nebraska state senators have the opportunity to help our rural friends and neighbors by passing legislation that would increase broadband build-out to the currently unserved, rural communities in our state.

LB 455, the Broadband Pole Attachment Act, proposes to reform the currently cumbersome and costly utility pole attachments process and move us closer to ensuring that rural Nebraskans have access to the broadband resources they need. Our state’s broadband infrastructure relies on the ability for broadband providers to attach to utility poles. With fewer homes and businesses in the most rural areas of Nebraska, internet providers need to access multiple poles per home to build out broadband. As a result, pole applications, pole replacement rules, pole rental fees and the complaint resolution process can significantly influence or even inhibit broadband infrastructure buildouts.

Because so many utility poles are already in place, it does not make sense for internet providers to erect new ones. It is more efficient to make use of what is already there. To achieve this, utilities must work together to find common ground. So far, that has been difficult to come by.

Simply put, a fairer, faster, and more cost-effective process for broadband providers to access utility poles would encourage increased investment to build out the broadband infrastructure needed to reach those areas that are currently underserved or unserved. We are confident this can happen in a way that provides clear benefits to our rural electric cooperatives and the ratepayers who own them, a true win-win for all involved.

At the Center for Rural Affairs, we believe that everyone—regardless of where they live — deserves all the resources needed to thrive in today’s world, including broadband access. Reaching a resolution on LB 455 would certainly help us more quickly reach that goal.

Feature photo: Chuck Karpf testifies before the Nebraska Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee during a 2020 hearing on Legislative Bill 996, a bill that created the Broadband Data Improvement Program. | Photo by Teresa Hoffman