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Midlands Voices: Good ideas at the Legislature to expand rural broadband in Nebraska
Midlands Voices

Midlands Voices: Good ideas at the Legislature to expand rural broadband in Nebraska

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Last weekend’s Omaha World-Herald article on rural broadband makes those of us who have been involved in the telecommunications industry for the past two decades a little uneasy. There was shrapnel buzzing by. Sometimes strange noises cause us to think.

In all earnestness, we must agree, Nebraska has spent a lot of money on rural broadband, yet many rural residents lack access to reliable broadband. The investigative report by Paul Hammel is of great value to the people of Nebraska. We need to understand how critical infrastructure is funded, and why it is lacking in some areas.

In 1997, the Legislature established the Nebraska Universal Service Fund, discussed in the article. The law called for broadband services in rural areas to be comparable to services and rates in urban areas.

Today, some argue rural Nebraskans do not need high-speed access to information. That is wrong.

Farmers and ranchers need it for business. Students need it for education — both distance learning and research. We need access for health care. Connectivity is needed to attract and retain young people who want more room than cities allow, but who want access to culture and entertainment. The pandemic has made us rethink the way we live. But way back in 1997, the Nebraska Legislature astutely recognized this and passed a law that requires comparable connectivity.

That was almost 24 years ago. What has been done? Rural Nebraskans can tell you. Some stories are good. Others are not. Paul Hammel’s article added depth.

I have the good fortune of speaking on behalf of seven small Nebraska telephone companies. All those companies, and a few others, have deployed fiber to customers throughout their rural service territories. They offer the best of broadband services to the most remote farms and ranches.

The customers of those companies have good stories to tell. I brag about those stories to state senators and others. They are the stories of students having access to educational resources to develop passions and skills, of farmers conserving natural resources with precision data, of our kids coming back to rural Nebraska from Chicago without giving up their chosen career. They are stories of Nebraska growing.

The Hammel story cited Public Service Commissioner Crystal Rhoades’ call for more accountability in how NUSF support is used by broadband providers. Frank Landis wisely started an overhaul of accountability before he retired from the commission, but Rhoades is correct. More accountability is needed. Rhoades is not alone; rural business and agriculture leaders are asking for more. Proper accountability will drive broadband deployment most efficiently where it is most needed.

The Governor’s Broadband Bridge Program requires accountability. It strikes a balance my clients strongly support. Through speed standards, the program will ensure that taxpayer money is not used for broadband infrastructure where it already exists. By setting speed standards of 100/100 to qualify for funding, the program will incentivize new infrastructure that will serve future demand.

These requirements will ensure that taxpayer money is stewarded responsibly. The same accountability should apply to all taxpayer and ratepayer money supporting broadband infrastructure, including NUSF support. Through speed standards, Legislative Bill 398 by Sen. Bruce Bostelman would do that. It would require that NUSF support is going only where it is needed to be spent in infrastructure capable of accommodating future needs.

Consistency is important. If it is prudent to require speed standards of 100/100 to qualify for taxpayer money under the governor’s program, then it is prudent to apply the same standards for ratepayer supporting infrastructure through the NUSF.

Other bills, like Sen. Wendy DeBoer’s LB 498, which requires speed tests for government-supported services, are driving at the same objective to be smart in the way our money is being spent.

Nebraskans should come together on improving rural infrastructure critical to our shared future. Understanding how that can be done is the first step. The World-Herald is to be commended for its work in informing the public so that we can understand.

Andy Pollock, an attorney and lobbyist in Lincoln, wrote this essay on behalf of the Nebraska Rural Broadband Alliance.

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