Bridging the digital divide to connect Nebraska
By Governor Pete Ricketts
September 20, 2022
official photo of the governor here.
Over the years, Nebraskans have built thousands of miles of trails, rails, power lines, and highways to connect our state. This connectivity has helped our urban and rural communities thrive.
However, as more of our lives have become connected to the Internet, we have seen a digital divide develop. It’s easier and less expensive to bring high-speed Internet to nearby homes in cities than it is to reach ranches miles apart. For this reason, broadband infrastructure in rural Nebraska has lagged behind our urban centers.
As Governor, my vision is to grow Nebraska. That means growing every part of Nebraska, from the cities to the suburbs to our rural areas. Geography should not determine opportunity in our state. No matter how far Nebraskans live from a city, they should have access to the digital tools they need to live, learn and do business. In today’s digital world, broadband connectivity is basic infrastructure.
I have been working with my agencies and the Legislature to expand high-speed, reliable broadband networks to connect every corner of Nebraska. In 2018, I enacted the LB 994 law, creating the Rural Broadband Working Group. Chaired by Ed Toner, the State’s Chief Information Officer, the task force was charged with helping us better understand Nebraska’s broadband needs. His work assessed gaps in coverage and proposed ways to expand broadband.
While our work to connect Nebraska began long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the pandemic underscored how important it is to have access to the digital world. Areas with high-speed Internet access were able to continue daily business operations, while areas without Internet struggled. In 2020, I earmarked $30 million of Nebraska Federal Coronavirus CARES Act funds for the Remote Rural Broadband Access Grant. This alone connected 17,500 homes to broadband connectivity.
Then, in 2021, I enacted the Rural Broadband Bridges Act (LB 388). This invested another $40 million to connect an additional 30,000 homes. As we continue to distribute funds through grants to telecommunications companies, we are prioritizing projects in underserved communities, from Nemaha County in southeastern Nebraska to Dawes County in northwestern Nebraska. Last year 61 scholarships were administered. Awards for the 2022 grant cycle will be announced this December.
We have set high standards as we work with telecommunications companies to grow Nebraska’s broadband infrastructure. While the 25 mbps download speed and 3 mbps upload speed (or 25/3) meet the Federal Communications Commission’s speed benchmark, we recognize that data throughput only increases as you improve. the technology. It is not enough to provide the bare minimum. Instead, we are building with the future in mind. Any business that receives state funding must develop 100/100 speeds, so our broadband networks can keep up with technology as it evolves.
At the same time, we are removing barriers for companies to invest in our effort. Initially, the Broadband Bridges Act required applicants to provide 50% of the total development costs. This year, I signed legislation (LB 1144) to reduce the investment required of companies in high-cost areas to 25%. This change makes it more profitable for telcos to build broadband in our rural areas.
In addition, there are several new funding sources coming from the federal government. The State recently received approval from the US Treasury for our plan to use $87.7 million from the Capital Projects Fund for broadband infrastructure. We are also receiving funds from three programs under the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act:
- BEAD: Broadband Equity, Access and Implementation Program. We have requested $5 million to plan and will receive at least $100 million to implement broadband projects in underserved and underserved areas.
- Digital Equity Grants: We will receive at least $7 million to ensure Nebraskans across the state have the resources they need to become digitally literate and have access to electronic devices.
- Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grants – Through the state, Internet service providers and public power districts can apply for these funds to build, upgrade, or acquire broadband infrastructure that does not directly connect to a service location. end user, such as a home or a school (towers, fiber, etc.).
There are a lot of moving parts as we manage these programs. However, we are ahead of the game in Nebraska. Unlike many other states, we have already passed the legislative framework and built the operational processes to manage grant applications and distribute awards. The priority we have placed on improving our broadband infrastructure has put Nebraska in a strong position to make efficient and effective use of new sources of federal funding for broadband expansion.
To better utilize federal broadband dollars to serve Nebraskans, we have created a “Connecting Nebraska” task force. Its sole purpose is to optimize federal resources to expand broadband. The group includes members from the State Budget Office, the Public Utilities Commission and the Office of the Chief Information Officer.
The Connect Nebraska task force helped us launch the broadway.nebraska.gov website, which will serve as the main information center for available broadband programs in the state. It will also be the main portal for grant applications. I encourage you to visit the website to learn more about the various funding sources and how to apply.
As Governor, I am committed to closing the broadband gap to connect even more Nebraskans to high-speed Internet. If you have any questions about our work to expand broadband, please contact me at [email protected] or 402-471-2244.