Proposed state broadband office touted as more effective, creative in closing ‘digital divide’
LINCOLN — With at least 80,000 to 90,000 locations in Nebraska still lacking quality broadband internet service, a legislative committee on Tuesday heard the latest proposal to close the state’s long-nagging “digital divide.”
Gov. Jim Pillen has proposed the creation of a new state broadband office, supplanting the Nebraska Public Service Commission as the state’s main conduit for doling out funds to companies to expand the reach of high-speed internet service.
A state broadband director, and an estimated nine other new staff members, would be housed within the Nebraska Department of Transportation. The office, estimated to cost $1.7 million a year, would assume the responsibility of granting out at least $100 million the state is scheduled to receive for broadband expansion from the federal infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden.
Perhaps more importantly, the State Broadband Office would be in charge of determining exactly how many “unserved” farms and homes are in the state — defined as having internet speeds of less than 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload — which could mean another $100 million to $300 million in federal funds for Nebraska.
Pillen has touted his plan as being “a more transparent, flexible, and proactive response for Nebraska’s broadband needs” than the PSC. Other advocates said Tuesday that it would provide a much more effective, and creative, way to improve internet services.
“This is good policy,” said Emily Haxby, a Gage County supervisor. “It’s good to see the governor recognize how important broadband is to the state.”
A ‘creative way’ to stretch dollars
Haxby, whose family farms near Clatonia, was part of a unique initiative in Gage County that is delivering high-speed, fiber internet services to nearly 1,000 locations.
The county used $4 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds and partnered with an internet provider for an $11 million project that other counties in the state are now seeking to duplicate, she said.
“We need to find creative ways to stretch these federal dollars,” Haxby said, noting that other states have formed similar broadband offices.
Representatives of the AARP, the League of Nebraska Municipalities and the Nebraska Farm Bureau also testified in favor of Pillen’s plan, contained in Legislative Bill 683.
Bruce Reiker of the Farm Bureau said the new office would have less distractions with “other obligations” than the PSC and might avoid “turf battles” that have harmed deployment of broadband across the state.
No one testified against LB 683 during its hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, but some internet providers said they had concerns about such a major shift.
Could cause delays
They argued that while having a broadband adviser and promoter associated with the Governor’s Office was a good idea, shifting the responsibility of awarding grants away from a proven provider, the PSC, in midstream might create problems.
“We believe delays will be inevitable,” said Tip O’Neill, of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, a trade group for internet providers.
Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, who was elected to represent southeast Nebraska on the five-member Public Service Commission, said the agency has the “institutional knowledge” to handle the new federal funds coming from the infrastructure bill, via the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. The PSC is already in charge of distributing $40 million through the state’s Broadband Bridge Act.
He said the PSC had already hired three new employees to deal with the BEAD program and recently signed a contract to produce a new, more accurate map of the state’s broadband needs.
‘Has the PSC done something wrong?’
Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman expressed a lack of confidence in the PSC to produce an accurate map showing where internet service is lacking in the state. A good map, he said, could mean the difference in millions of dollars of federal funds.
Getting accurate maps, Watermeier said, is a frustration of the PSC, as well. Such maps are outdated as soon as they’re produced, he said.
Omaha Sen. Wendy DeBoer also questioned why a shift to a new office was necessary.
“Has the PSC done something wrong that we don’t know about?” the senator asked.
Vicki Kramer, the director of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said her agency is uniquely qualified to host the new broadband office and to “scale up” to meet the tight deadlines and technical information required to qualify for BEAD funds.
A five-year plan for the BEAD funds is due in August.
Kramer said the NDOT already has experience with obtaining funds from the federal infrastructure bill for highway projects and has plenty of staff to perform the outreach and planning work required of the BEAD program.
“There’s one organization in the state that can provide the level of support to make sure Nebraska makes the best use of these funds, and that’s the Department of Transportation,” she said.