High-speed internet access is limited across many portions of rural Nebraska outside city or village limits. To boost broadband development in these areas, state Sen. Curt Friesen, 34th District, of Henderson, introduced LB994, which creates the Rural Broadband Task Force to study the development of enhanced broadband services in rural parts of the state. The bill passed the Unicameral unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
The law creates a task force, which will include members from the Nebraska Public Service Commission, the director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and the director of the Department of Agriculture, along with additional members appointed by the governor from agribusiness, business, telecommunications, public power and education sectors.
The Nebraska Information Technology Commission will host a Rural Broadband Task Force Fund to pay for the study, which is initially funded by a $50,000 transfer from the Nebraska Internet Enhancement Fund. The task force will report its findings by Dec. 1, 2019.
Another aspect of the legislation was the authorization of NPSC to withhold funding from companies that have not provided adequate broadband internet services to unserved or underserved areas. The funds withheld could be used to institute a reverse auction program that would award funding to broadband providers to support high-speed internet infrastructure projects in those areas. LB994 exempts the sale, lease, rental and storage, use or consumption of dark fiber from state sales and use taxes.
"I try not to think of this so much as a study committee, but more as an action or policy committee," Friesen says. "We know what the problem is, so we just need to determine what is the best plan of attack for getting the problem fixed at the least cost to the public. We need to find ways to incentivize private industry to deliver high-speed broadband to low-density, high-cost areas as quickly as possible using the best economically suited technology to accomplish the goal."
Most Nebraskans have access to broadband, and more urban areas have access to download speeds of at least 100 Mb or more. For some rural areas outside city limits though, residents have no service, or dial-up service, which is almost unworkable today.
"Agriculture is the state's No. 1 industry. And if we want the state's No. 1 industry to compete in today's world, we need access to the technology that is available today," Friesen says. "We need to stem the flow of young people from greater Nebraska and try to spur some economic development in areas other than Lincoln and Omaha."
Friesen says he believes access to high-speed broadband would help diversify the economy in rural parts of the state and even out some of the up- and downcycles of agriculture.
Friesen is realistic about the challenges. "We held hearings across the state, and we tried to cover the issues that were brought forward," he says. "We realized that the most sparsely populated areas would be the most difficult to get service to, because companies cannot build a business model that would be economically sustainable" from so few customers. That's why the law doesn't choose a specific broadband delivery model, but leaves it up to industry to creatively come up with a mixture of technology to get high-speed broadband to the last miles of rural Nebraska at an affordable cost, Friesen says.