Expanding high-speed internet access to rural areas of the state was the focus of a hearing of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee Feb. 5.
Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen introduced LB994, which would create the Rural Broadband Study Task Force to assist in developing enhanced broadband telecommunications service to unserved and underserved areas in rural Nebraska.
“It is vital to Nebraska’s future well-being that our rural residents have the same opportunities to participate in the information superhighway as our urban residents,” Friesen said. “I hope [LB994] jumpstarts the process for eliminating the digital divide between our rural and urban residents.”
Membership on the task force would include the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee chairperson, another member of the Legislature appointed by the Executive Board, a member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, the chairperson of the Nebraska Information Technology Commission, the director of the state Department of Economic Development, the director of the state Department of Agriculture, and additional members to be appointed by the governor, including representatives from the state’s agribusiness, business, telecommunications, public power and educational communities.
The task force would study issues relating to the availability, adoption and affordability of broadband services in rural areas of the state. Specifically, the task force would:
• determine how the average advertised subscription rates and download and upload speeds compare with neighboring states;
• determine whether the administration of the Nebraska Telecommunications Universal Service Fund is effective in bringing comparable and affordable broadband service to rural residents;
• review the feasibility of alternative technologies and providers in expediting access to faster and more reliable broadband service in rural areas;
• recommend state policies to effectively leverage state Universal Service Fund dollars with federal support; and
• recommend to the governor and Legislature the most effective and efficient ways to use federal broadband rural infrastructure funds.
A final report of the task force’s findings would be delivered to the Legislature’s Executive Board no later than Dec. 1, 2019.
LB994 also would authorize the Nebraska Public Service Commission to institute a reverse auction program that would award funding to broadband internet service providers to support high-speed internet infrastructure deployment projects in unserved or underserved areas. Additionally, the commission could withhold funding from companies that have not adequately served such areas.
Finally, the bill would direct the commission to establish a registry of locations within the state that receive complaints of a lack of wireless coverage. The annual report would be publicly available and could be used in future funding decisions.
Representing the Nebraska Public Service Commission in support of the bill was Commissioner Mary Ridder.
“I’m a strong proponent of pulling together stakeholders who are working to bring Nebraska forward into the future,” Ridder said. “This is a great vehicle for addressing the challenge of expanding broadband into rural areas.”
Also supporting the measure was Gwen Kautz, representing the Nebraska Rural Electric Association. She said having affordable broadband services is as important as accessible services.
“A non-traditional partnership and other innovative solutions could ensure all Nebraskans have reliable and affordable broadband,” Kautz said. “We should have all the same opportunities as our urban counterparts do.”
No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.