Midlands Voices: Bill can boost rural broadband in Nebraska communities

Published in the Omaha World-Herald on Feb. 17, 2020

With strong support from the Nebraska Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee and State Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, a bill to improve broadband access in our state is scheduled to be debated on Tuesday.

Legislative Bill 996, Brandt’s priority bill for this session, is a critical step in making our state compatible with a new federal broadband expansion program. In doing so, LB 996 opens the door for a greater share of federal funds directed at financing broadband expansion in unserved areas.

This legislation is needed. In today’s world, having access to the Internet has become just as important as other utilities citizens have come to rely on, such as electricity, water and sewer. From Omaha to Scottsbluff, Superior to Valentine, and all areas in between, broadband service is critical to business, farms and ranches, the education of young people and health care services.

However, in rural and low- to moderate-income areas, obtaining broadband access can be difficult, and even when available, cost-prohibitive. For many, service can be slow, unreliable and inconsistent. This forces families to sit outside of McDonald’s to complete homework or use their place of employment to conduct personal business.

These Nebraskans have come to accept that affordable and reliable broadband service is not in the cards for them, or that slow speeds are just part of living in Nebraska. But, we can do better. By improving state policy, all of our homes and businesses will have a chance to access basic broadband service, no matter where they are located.

To make this a reality, the Legislature must act.

On Jan. 30 of this year, the Federal Communications Commission approved its largest investment ever to close the digital divide. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will distribute up to $20.4 billion in funding over the next 10 years. Funds will be distributed in two phases.

The first phase will target $16 billion to census blocks with no broadband service at all. Of the 6 million locations identified as eligible, only 54,000 (0.9%) are in Nebraska.

The second phase of funding will be used to target unserved households that are discovered through a combination of improved data submitted by providers and the results of crowdsourcing efforts implemented at the state level. States that are able to identify unserved households through crowdsourcing will be eligible for a greater share of federal funds.

Crowdsourcing is a method that prepares consumers to perform their own speed and reliability tests. This is the most cost-effective way to verify data, but it can be unreliable. That is why LB 996 asks the Public Service Commission to compile and submit these results.

LB 996 heads to the floor for debate with the backing of a number of groups, including AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Farmers Union. It is also supported by Nebraska’s Public Service Commission.

Nebraska is a state of opportunity, and in the 21st century, this requires access to basic services. We encourage state senators to be unanimous in their support for LB 996. By working together, we can make broadband access affordable and accessible across the state.