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Nebraska may use grant program to expand rural broadband

February 8, 2021 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska could spend up to $20 million a year to expand high-speed internet service in rural areas under a proposal backed Monday by a diverse alliance of farm, business and school groups and championed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The proposed grant program was pitched as an incentive for broadband providers to install service lines in rural areas where doing so isn’t financially feasible because the populations are too small.

“We’ve got to have this infrastructure, it’s basic infrastructure,” Ricketts told the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on Monday.

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A 2019 report commissioned for Nebraska lawmakers found that many rural residents have at least one provider, but average speeds are slower than in the cities and there are fewer companies to compete and drive down prices.

Ricketts said he often hears from constituents in remote areas who have to drive to their nearest public library for internet service. He said the problem was aggravated by the pandemic, which forced many families to work and attend school remotely.

The bill would set aside $20 million a year for the next two years for grants aimed at unserved areas of the state. Ricketts said it would help cover an estimated 30,000 residents.

It would also create a “challenge process” for internet companies, allowing them to qualify for grant money if they install internet with minimum download speeds of 100 megabytes per second and upload speeds of 100 megabytes per second, which would easily be capable of streaming high-definition movies from multiple devices at the same time. Companies would also have to complete the project within 18 months and repay the grant money if tests later show that they failed to meet the speed requirements.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the proposal would benefit farms and other remote areas. Sen. Bruce Bostelman, of Brainard, said current broadband maps show coverage in areas of the state where it doesn’t actually exist.

“I’m just wondering how much of this is going to reach outside of a town or village,” he said.

Nebraska Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue said his group’s members strongly support the measure, which they see as critical to help them run their farms.

“We believe rural areas should have access to affordable broadband, just like urban areas do,” he said.

Lack of internet access was a key weakness identified in a 2019 “Blueprint Nebraska” report that examined steps the state can take to improve its economy and attract workers, said former state Sen. Jim Smith, the executive director of the group that conducted the report.

“Virtual connectivity is essential to business innovation and growing Nebraska’s most promising industry sectors,” Smith said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte