Study of rural broadband availability due in 2019

A proposal to study expanding high-speed internet access to rural areas of the state was passed by the Legislature April 11.

<a href='' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Curt Friesen'>Sen. Curt Friesen</a>
Sen. Curt Friesen

Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen introduced LB994, which creates the Rural Broadband Task Force to assist in developing enhanced broadband telecommunications service to unserved and underserved areas in rural Nebraska.

Membership on the task force will include a member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, the director of the state Department of Economic Development and the director of the state Department of Agriculture. Additional members will be appointed by the governor, including representatives from the state’s agribusiness, business, telecommunications, public power and educational communities.

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee chairperson and another member of the Legislature appointed by the Executive Board will serve as nonvoting, ex officio members. The chairperson of the Nebraska Information Technology Commission will chair the task force.

It will study issues relating to the availability, adoption and affordability of broadband services in rural areas of the state. Specifically, the task force will:
• 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;
• study alternatives for deployment to unserved or underserved areas such as reverse auction programs, public-private partnerships and funding for competitive deployment;
• 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.

The Nebraska Information Technology Commission will host a Rural Broadband Task Force Fund to pay for the study, which initially will be funded by a $50,000 transfer from the Nebraska Internet Enhancement Fund.

A final report of the task force’s findings will be delivered to the Legislature’s Executive Board no later than Dec. 1, 2019.

LB994 also authorizes the Nebraska Public Service Commission to withhold funding from companies that have not provided adequate broadband internet to unserved or underserved areas. The withheld funds could be used to institute a reverse auction program that would award funding to broadband internet service providers to support high-speed internet infrastructure deployment projects in these areas.

Such funding must be used only in the exchange area where it originally was granted.

The commission will establish a registry of locations within the state that receive complaints of a lack of wireless coverage. The annual report will be publicly available and can be used in future funding decisions.

Finally, the bill includes provisions of LB966, also introduced by Friesen. These exempt the sale, lease or rental of and the storage, use or consumption of dark fiber from state sales and use taxes.

The bill passed on a 48-0 vote.

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