Nebraska Lawmakers Consider Speeding Up Rural Broadband Access

By Eric Galatas, Public News Service (NE)

Nebraska lawmakers are scheduled to hear a bill next week designed to ramp up access to broadband internet in parts of the state still stuck at dial-up speeds.

Johnathan Hladik, policy director with the Center for Rural Affairs, said broadband is an economic-development tool for small businesses in rural communities - one of the state's key job creators. And it's becoming increasingly important for farmers.

"There is a lot of exciting work happening within agriculture that takes advantage of new and cutting-edge technologies to improve yields," Hladik said. "When you have broadband out to some of these farms, it allows farmers to do a better job."

The measure, LB 996 would put Nebraska residents in the driver's seat to identify and report broadband gaps to the Public Service Commission. The crowdsourced data then would be leveraged to bring federal dollars back to the state to connect areas not served by providers.

Some lawmakers have raised concerns about the upfront costs of such a program. But Hladik said every dollar invested would produce large returns in both federal funding and increased economic activity.

The legislation includes recommendations by the state's Rural Broadband Task Force, which identified strategies for filling broadband gaps last spring and summer. Hladik said the measure would make Nebraska more competitive with states that already have a big head start when it comes to broadband.

"Every state around us has done more for rural broadband than Nebraska has," he said. "So we need to be sure that lawmakers are sending the right message, that members of the Public Service Commission are sending the right message: that Nebraska is ready to be a leader; Nebraska is ready to compete."

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee is set to hear LB 996 on February 3. A separate bill, LB 992, also incorporates recommendations by the broadband task force, and is scheduled to be heard by the same committee next week.