When telephone service began a major expansion across our country in the 1920s, a fundamental economic challenge became clear: It was financially feasible for companies to extend service to densely populated areas. But providing service to lightly populated areas was costly. As a result, many rural areas initially were underserved, even though telephone service was proving to be an invaluable part of modern life.
A century later, this economic factor is stifling the extension of high-speed broadband to many rural areas in Nebraska’s wide open spaces.
Thirty-seven percent of rural Nebraskans lack access to high-speed broadband service, a state task force reports. Such service currently is unavailable for 84% of public libraries in towns with a population of less than 2,500.
This is unacceptable. In the 21st century’s wired economy, high-speed broadband service is increasingly critical in business operations, agriculture, school instruction and personal life.
In some areas of Nebraska, it’s by no means uncommon for parents to drive and park near fast-food outlets or other businesses to make use of the Wi-Fi connection so their child can complete homework. And the COVID pandemic has underscored the importance of a proper broadband service for education, as schools shifted to remote instruction and children had to rely on Internet connections.
Just as government a century ago set up a “universal service fund” to subsidize telephone service extension to rural areas, so in this century the same tool is used to help rural areas receive high-speed broadband. As recent World-Herald news coverage explained, even with the subsidies, the process in Nebraska has been slow.
Bit by bit, Nebraska officials have been striving to improve the support. To bolster accountability, the Nebraska Public Service Commission hands out grants for specific projects, and doesn’t pay until the project is done. If the work isn’t being done within a certain time period, the commission has the authority to claw back money.
The commission has reduced the amount of a company’s administrative costs that can be covered by the subsidies, so that a greater portion of funding goes toward installation of hardware.
In Lincoln, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee regularly sends proposals to the floor of the Legislature to address broadband needs. A bill last year, for example, helped Nebraska qualify for a major expansion of rural broadband subsidies by the Federal Telecommunications Commission.
This session, Gov. Pete Ricketts is proposing, for the first time, that Nebraska use some general-fund dollars for rural broadband subsidies. He is calling for $40 million over two years. It will be up to the Legislature to decide on the extra amount, since lawmakers must balance countless demands for state support, but Ricketts’ general point is correct. The rural broadband challenge is so great, especially in the wake of the pandemic, that some general-fund support is appropriate.