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Ricketts pushes proposal for $40 million in state funds to expand broadband in rural Nebraska

Ricketts pushes proposal for $40 million in state funds to expand broadband in rural Nebraska

LINCOLN — A long line of supporters testified Monday for a proposal by Gov. Pete Ricketts to spend $40 million in state funds to help expand high-speed internet service into Nebraska’s rural areas.

Representatives of telecommunications companies and school, business and rural organizations all said the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the importance of broadband, as people were forced to work and to do schoolwork at home. It also underscored the “digital divide” between the adequacy of service in urban and rural areas.

Ricketts and others said they’ve heard too many stories of families having to drive their kids to libraries in town, parking lots near schools or high hills near their ranch to access adequate internet service to do homework. Businesses, they said, won’t locate or expand in a rural areas unless they have high-speed internet.

“We’ve got to have this infrastructure. It’s basic,” the governor said. “This investment will allow all of Nebraska to be able to grow.”

Expanding broadband internet service in rural areas has become one of the top issues in the Legislature this year. Legislative Bill 388, introduced on behalf of Ricketts, is one of 11 bills being considered this year to boost expansion of broadband.

The money earmarked by the governor — $20 million a year for two years — marks the first time he’s devoted general state funds to address the problem. It would be in addition to the $29 million in federal coronavirus relief funds that Ricketts designated for rural broadband projects last year.

And that’s on top of nearly $370 million that the Nebraska Public Service Commission has allocated to expand and maintain high-speed internet over the past decade, using money from fees charged on landline and cellphone bills.

Despite that spending, BroadbandNow, a California-based research group, ranks Nebraska 48th among the states in coverage, speed and affordability of broadband access. And testifiers on Monday said that it will take several years to expand services.

Ricketts said his proposal would bring broadband to an additional 30,000 households in Nebraska.

Right now, he said, an estimated 80,000 households don’t have access to internet that meets the federal definition of broadband set in 2015: 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed, referred to as 25/3.

Under LB 388, state grants would cover 50% of the cost of a project and would have to provide internet speeds of 100/100, which Ricketts and others said represents “quality” internet for today’s needs. About 150,000 households in the state, he said, now lack access to 100/100 internet speeds.

The bill would give priority to broadband expansion projects in areas that lack 25/3 internet speeds and have no projects planned to change that, areas where projects are underway but cannot be completed within 24 months, and underserved areas that already have access to 25/3 broadband.

No one testified against the governor’s proposal during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, but several testifiers suggested amendments to improve the bill.

The Nebraska Telecommunications Association, which represents several firms in the state, suggested a $5 million limit on grants, more flexibility in completing a project and a scoring system that better identifies the highest-priority grants.

There also was considerable discussion about whether current data is accurate about where adequate broadband services are lacking and where they aren’t.

State Sen. Bruce Bostelman, who lives outside a rural community north of Lincoln, said current maps based on census tracts are often inaccurate. There’s regularly a disconnect, he said, between internet speeds promised by providers and the actual speeds delivered.

Ricketts’ bill, advocates said, would require testing to prove that speeds met the 100/100 requirement.

Four other broadband bills heard on Monday got more mixed testimony.

Utility companies denied that there have been problems negotiating permission to use power poles by internet companies, which was the focus of LB 455. Municipalities likewise said there was no need for additional regulation on placement of cell towers within cities, as called for in LB 520.

Six more broadband bills will be the subject of public hearings on Tuesday. A comprehensive bill, combining aspects of all of the broadband proposals, is expected to advance to debate this year.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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