Proposed government broadband office touted as more efficient and creative in bridging the ‘digital divide’

LINCOLN. At least 80,000 to 90,000 places in Nebraska still lack quality broadband Internet access, so a legislative committee heard the latest proposal on Tuesday to close the state’s long-standing “digital divide.”

Governor Jim Pillen has proposed the creation of a new state broadband office to replace the Nebraska Public Service Commission as the state’s primary channel for providing funds to companies to expand access to high-speed Internet service.

The state’s director of broadband and about nine other new hires will work for the Nebraska Department of Transportation. The office, which is valued at $1.7 million a year, will take responsibility for allocating at least $100 million the state must receive for broadband expansion under President Biden’s federal infrastructure bill.

Perhaps more importantly, the State Broadband Administration will be responsible for accurately determining how many “unmanaged” farms and homes are in the state, defined as Internet connection speeds of less than 25Mbps download/3Mbps download. which could mean another $100 million. up to $300 million from Nebraska federal funds.

Pillen advertised his plan as “a more transparent, flexible and proactive response to Nebraska’s broadband needs” than the PSC. Other proponents said on Tuesday that it would provide a much more efficient and creative way to improve internet services.

“It’s a good policy,” said Emily Huxby, Gage County Executive. “It’s great to see the Governor recognize how important broadband is to the state.”

“Creative Way” to Stretch Dollars

Huxby, whose family farms near Clathonia, was part of a unique initiative in Gage County that provides high-speed fiber internet service to nearly 1,000 locations.

The county used $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds and partnered with an ISP for an $11 million project that other counties in the state are now trying to replicate, she said.

“We need to find creative ways to stretch those federal dollars,” Huxby said, noting that other states have set up similar broadband offices.

Representatives from the AARP, the League of Nebraska Municipalities, and the Nebraska Farm Bureau also testified in favor of Pillen’s plan contained in Legislative Bill 683.

Farm Bureau’s Bruce Reiker said the new office would be less distracted by “other commitments” than the PSC and could avoid the “turf battles” that have crippled broadband rollouts across the state.

No one testified against LB 683 during the hearings before the Legislative Assembly Committee on Transportation and Telecommunications, but some ISPs said they were concerned about such a major change.

May cause delays

They argued that while having a broadband advisor and promoter linked to the governor’s office was a good idea, shifting responsibility for grants from a trusted provider, PSC, in the interim could create problems.

“We believe delays will be inevitable,” said Tip O’Neill of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, an ISP trade group.

Dan Watermyer of Syracuse, who was elected to represent southeast Nebraska on the five-member Public Service Commission, said the agency has the “institutional expertise” to manage new federal funds coming from the infrastructure bill through broadband, access and deployment. (BUS) program. The PSC is already responsible for distributing $40 million under the state’s broadband bridge law.

He said PSC has already hired three new employees to work with the BEAD program and recently signed a contract to create a new, more accurate map of the state’s broadband needs.

– Did the COP do something wrong?

Brainard Senator Bruce Bostelman expressed uncertainty that the PSC would produce an accurate map showing where Internet service is lacking in the state. A good card could mean a difference of millions of dollars in federal funds, he said.

Getting accurate maps is also frustrating for the PSC, Watermeyer said. According to him, such cards become obsolete immediately after their release.

Omaha Senator Wendy DeBoer also questioned why a move to a new office was necessary.

“Did the PSC do something wrong that we don’t know about?” the senator asked.

Vicky Cramer, director of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said her agency is uniquely qualified to host a new broadband office and “scale up” to meet the tight deadline and provide the technical information needed to qualify for BEAD funding.

The five-year plan for BEAD funds is due in August.

Cramer said the NDOT already has a track record of receiving funds from the federal infrastructure bill for highway projects and has many staff to do the outreach and planning needed for the BEAD program.

“There is one organization in the state that can provide a level of support to make sure Nebraska makes the best use of these funds, and that is the Department of Transportation,” she said.

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