LINCOLN — State lawmakers opted Wednesday to require the “Cadillac” of broadband services in new projects in rural areas subsidized by state fees on cell phone and telephone bills.
After Jan. 1, any new broadband project funded in part by the state’s Universal Service Fund must provide speeds of 100/100 (100 megabits per second download and 100 Mbps upload), which some senators referred to as the “Cadillac” of internet speeds.
Currently, the federal and state definition of broadband is a speed of 25/3, which was described as barely adequate today and inadequate for future uses, such has high-tech agriculture applications and business needs.
According to a recent estimate, 80,000 of Nebraska’s rural residents lack internet that delivers speeds of 25/3, with nearly twice that number lacking 100/100 speeds.
State Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, who helped craft the compromise, said Legislative Bill 338 was a leap forward, one that will provide standards for grants provided by the Nebraska Public Service Commission and federal American Rescue Plan funds set aside to expand rural broadband services.
“This will ensure that state money is not spent on inadequate technology,” Bostelman said. LB 338 advanced from first-round debate on a 42-0 vote.
Expanding broadband services to more rural areas has become a top priority in the 2021 session of the State Legislature as the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to work and access school from home, exposed inadequate internet services in some places.
A 2019 state task force study found that Nebraska ranked behind all of its neighboring states except Wyoming in broadband availability. A year ago, BroadbandNow, a California-based research firm, ranked Nebraska 48th in terms of access, price and speed.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has proposed spending $20 million in each of the next two years to expand broadband in currently unserved areas. It is the first time state taxpayer dollars will be devoted to the effort. His bill has not yet received first-round debate.
The state USF money, which comes from fees on cell phone and land-line bills, has funded previous high-speed internet expansion efforts, to the tune of $106.5 million over the past five years.
Additional broadband expansion funds are also coming from the federal Rescue Act, which allocated $7 billion nationwide to the effort.
Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen, who also helped craft Wednesday’s compromise as chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said he “wasn’t tickled” by “raising the bar” on internet speeds because it could leave some hard-to-serve, remote areas that might have only 10/1 speeds now, behind. Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist also expressed reservations, because raising the standard to 100/100 in hard-to-reach rural areas will become much more expensive.
Friesen emphasized that expansion of broadband is costly and complicated. He said that estimates of how much it would cost to provide high-speed internet to the entire state range from $3 billion to $5 billion.
“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said.
Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne spiced up Wednesday’s debate by suggesting that if Nebraska really wanted to accelerate broadband deployment, it ought to follow the example set by public power.
Subsidizing private companies hasn’t worked, he said, because they’re motivated by profit and not service. Meanwhile, Wayne said that communities in Tennessee have established publicly owned broadband services that charge as little as $16 a month.
He pledged to bring up his public broadband idea again when the governor’s bill makes it to first-round debate.