Broadband grant funding expanded

Lawmakers passed a bill May 20 meant to encourage increased broadband availability throughout the state.

Sen. Curt Friesen
Sen. Curt Friesen

Under LB388, introduced by Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen at the request of Gov. Pete Ricketts, the Public Service Commission will administer grants to providers, cooperatives and political subdivisions to fund qualifying broadband development projects.

The bill appropriates $20 million annually beginning in fiscal year 2021-22 to the commission to fund the grants. Priority will be given to grants to unserved areas that previously have not been targeted for such a project, unserved areas that are receiving federal support for construction that will not be completed within 24 months and underserved areas that have developed a broadband and digital inclusion plan.

Eligibility is restricted to projects providing broadband internet service scalable to 100 Mbps for downloading and 100 Mbps for uploading, or greater. Each project must have a completion deadline of 18 months from the date the grant is awarded and be eligible for one extension of six months, to be approved by the PSC.

Grant applications must be submitted on or before Oct. 1, 2021, for FY2021-22, and on or before July 1 for subsequent fiscal years. Political subdivisions must form a public-private partnership with a service provider to qualify for funding under LB388 and commit matching funds equal to 50 percent of the total development costs.

The bill requires all grant recipients to conduct randomized speed tests and submit the results to the PSC. If speeds fail to meet the bill’s requirements, the provider will be required to repay the grant.

The PSC will publish all grant applicants on its website within three days of the application deadline. Any service provider may, within 30 days, challenge an applicant’s eligibility for funding if the applicant already provides broadband or has begun construction in or near the proposed area.

The commission will judge each applicant based on their financial, technical and legal capability to deploy broadband that meets minimum speeds at competitive prices and can be scalable to higher speeds in the future.

The commission will approve grants for all qualified applicants while funding remains available, with no award to exceed $5 million. An applicant must provide broadband service for the entirety of the funding agreement. A grant recipient that fails to provide service at required speeds will have reasonable time to address the speed deficiency before funding is withdrawn.

LB388 passed on a 49-0 vote.

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