Transportation and Telecommunications

Creation of broadband services office advanced from first round

A bill that would establish a state broadband office in Nebraska advanced from general file March 31 after a successful cloture motion.

Sen. Suzanne Geist
Sen. Suzanne Geist

LB683, introduced by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, would create the Nebraska Broadband Office to administer and maintain 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.

Currently, broadband services are under the purview of the Public Service Commission, a five-member elected body that regulates a variety of transportation and telecommunications industries in Nebraska.

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;
•provide resources and assistance for local and regional broadband planning; and
•coordinate programs for broadband users, such as libraries and schools and digital equity and inclusion projects.

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

Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, chairperson of the committee, spoke in support of the bill, saying Nebraska is expected to receive between $100 million and $400 million in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program funding to implement broadband across the state. LB683 would help to expedite use of those BEAD funds, she said, and ensure that federal program deadlines are met.

“The administration of these funds is a huge job and this coordinator’s specific position will be to administer and deploy the funding, but also … where these funds will go,” Geist said. “We need to get this individual in place so that we can start working toward our five-year plan, which is due in August.”

Plymouth Sen. Tom Brandt also supported the bill. Having a dedicated broadband director would help rural Nebraska achieve full broadband access, he said, something that has not happened yet.

“Now is the time to help the unserved and underserved areas of the state,” he said.

Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman also spoke in favor. Thirty-four states already have a broadband office or commission, he said, and Nebraska has lagged behind on the broadband issue for years.

“This is something we need to do now,” Bostelman said. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars coming to the state. We need an office that is focused solely on taking those funds, understanding the needs of the state and delivering the funds into those areas [and] to those people that need it most.”

While in support of expanding broadband access across the state, Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad expressed concern that the bill would disrupt the continuity of the work on broadband access that the PSC has engaged in for the last several years.

“I’m also concerned about the duplication of efforts by essentially creating a new state agency,” Conrad said. “I’m not entirely sure if there is existing subject matter expertise within the Department of Transportation to address and advance [broadband] policy goals.”

A Transportation and Telecommunications Committee amendment, adopted 46-1, would, among other provisions, require the broadband director to provide a report to the Legislature annually and require the committee to conduct a public hearing following receipt of the report.

Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte spoke in support of LB683 and the committee amendment, saying the PSC has failed to deliver broadband statewide.

“I have people in my district and across the state in rural areas that want broadband and are tired of waiting for it,” Jacobson said. “It’s time for someone to take control of [broadband], and the governor intends to do just that.”

While in support of the idea of creating a broadband office, Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh opposed the bill and the committee amendment. LB683 would give the governor’s office more control over the use of state funds, she said, diluting the separation of powers and the authority of both the Legislature and the PSC.

“We are taking a function away from an elected body and giving it to the governor,” Cavanaugh said. “That causes me a great deal of hesitation.”

Cavanaugh offered several amendments to the bill that she said would increase transparency and oversight of the Nebraska Broadband Office, including an amendment that would have required the office to be subject to the Open Meetings Act. None of the amendments were adopted.

After eight hours of general file debate over two days, Geist filed a motion to invoke cloture, which ends debate and forces a vote on the bill and any pending amendments.

The motion succeeded on a vote of 43-1. Thirty-three votes were needed. Lawmakers then voted 43-2 to advance LB683 to select file.

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