Transportation and Telecommunications

Creation of broadband services office considered

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard testimony Feb. 7 on a bill that would establish a state broadband office.

LB683, introduced by the committee, would create the Nebraska Broadband Office for the purpose of administering and maintaining broadband services in Nebraska. Under the bill, a broadband director would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature to lead the office, which would operate administratively under the Nebraska Department of Transportation.

Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman, a member of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said lawmakers “struggled” when initially deciding where to house an office dedicated to statewide broadband issues before settling on the Public Service Commission. While the PSC has done a good job, he said, another state agency may be a better fit going forward than the regulatory commission would be.

Among other provisions, LB683 would require the new broadband office to:
• collaborate with stakeholders and state and local officials;
• develop the strategic broadband plan to maximize use of public and private resources;
• coordinate state broadband infrastructure deployment, operation and maintenance;
• conduct state advocacy on broadband issues at the federal level, including mapping and speed data;
• ensure funds are used cost-effectively;
• provide resources and assistance for local and regional broadband planning;
• coordinate programs for broadband users, such as libraries and schools and digital equity and inclusion projects; and
• provide resources and information to the public through a website and other communication modes.

Finally, the bill would transfer the creation and maintenance of the state broadband map from the Public Service Commission to the new Nebraska Broadband Office.

NDOT director Vicki Kramer spoke in support of the bill. The state needs a structured entity to dispense incoming federal broadband funds in an efficient and transparent manner, Kramer said, and the department’s demonstrated experience working with federal funds can assist the new broadband office to successfully manage and distribute those funds.

“Through the broadband office, the NDOT is uniquely positioned to serve as the lead partner in managing the buildout of the broadband network for Nebraska’s unserved and underserved communities,” Kramer said.

Also in support of LB683 was Sarah Meier, representing the Nebraska Rural Broadband Alliance. Collaboration will be imperative at all levels of broadband implementation going forward, she said, and the state can’t continue to “cobble together” broadband infrastructure.

“Rapid, large-scale deployment will be essential and we have to be smart about it. Other states and regions are competing for funding as well as resources, such as fiber and labor,” Meier said. “Nebraska needs a leader [that] is singularly dedicated to setting and implementing bold broadband policy and strategy.”

Lash Chaffin, speaking on behalf of the League of Nebraska Municipalities, also spoke in favor of the bill. Currently, Chaffin said, residents are confused regarding who to contact about broadband services in Nebraska. Having a consolidated office would help steer people to the right place, he said.

Public Service Commissioner Dan Watermeier testified in a neutral capacity on LB683. He said he is “fine” creating the office within the NDOT but expressed concern that the state’s application for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program — a federal funding program used for broadband expansion that the PSC currently manages — could face administrative challenges with the transfer.

“While BEAD funding will present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deploy broadband infrastructure throughout Nebraska, we need to keep in mind there are already grant-funded and universal service-supported broadband networks in various stages of maturity which will require oversight and, additionally, all these networks need to be sustained in the long-term,” Watermeier said.

Watermeier also recommended that lawmakers consider allowing the PSC to continue to review data relating to the state broadband map.

Also testifying in a neutral capacity was Andrew Vinton, representing ALLO Communications. ALLO’s primary concern with the proposed broadband office is that it may be difficult to “ramp up” staffing and expertise in time to distribute incoming federal broadband funds, he said.

“Due to the constrained time frame of developing a state action plan and distributing federal broadband funds, the broadband office may be best suited to operate as a community outreach, policy creation and advocacy body, while the PSC — who are the subject matter experts — remain the ultimate distributor of grant funding,” Vinton said.

No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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