The importance of broadband internet in Nebraska can be illustrated in the tale of two businesses.
Jessika Benes moved to Juniata in Adams County to start Mid-Plains Mobile Vet and Animal Chiropractic, a veterinary clinic on wheels, hoping to utilize broadband internet speeds comparable to the Iowa community where she previously lived and worked.
While the local internet service provider purported to offer a similar connection, at least according to the Nebraska Broadband Mapping Project, in actuality, the download and upload speeds were much slower.
“I’m pretty routinely getting a download speed of 3 (megabits per second, or Mbps) and an upload of 1,” said the 35-year-old Benes. “It’s shocking, because I’m not in that rural of an area.”
The molasses-slow speeds have made it difficult to effectively manage her website where her clients book appoints, have hampered her ability to pursue continuing education online, and have delayed the deployment of telemedicine services.
Some of the issues Benes has faced will be discussed during public hearings on a trio of bills Monday in the Legislature.
Roughly 140 miles due north of Benes' vet business, friends and college roommates Matt Dennis and Michael Stepp, both 33, created Handlebend, an online store for hand-built copper mugs based in their hometown of O'Neill.
Through a locally designed website, Handlebend sold $10,000 in merchandise in 2016. Two years later, the duo sold close to $200,000 in copper products and brand apparel.
Dennis said the pair’s side business wouldn't be possible without a high-speed broadband connection of 30 Mbps, which connects them to customers around the world.
"Ninety percent of our business comes from online orders," he said. "We haven't had a brick and mortar store. We're building these in a shop in O'Neill and selling them online."
Handlebend will have similar internet speeds in the 1940s-era storefront the owners plan to open downtown, helping grow their business in the town of 3,700.
"With broadband and the ability to reach people online, it definitely gives folks — especially young folks — an option to move back to rural places and chase their entrepreneurial dreams," Dennis said.
While 6 in 10 rural Nebraskans have access to broadband internet, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission study, the experiences of Mid-Plains Mobile Vet and Handlebend illustrate just how wide that divide can be.
State Sen. Tom Brandt, who still relies upon DSL, or a digital subscriber line connection, at his Plymouth-area home, said faster, more reliable internet throughout the state will expand educational opportunities, health services, and use of technology in agriculture.
Introducing a measure (LB549) brought by Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz last year, Brandt wants the state to create and maintain a mapping system detailing where high-speed internet was available "address by address," a first step in addressing what he called an economic development issue in rural Nebraska.
"There's a huge digital divide, not only in Nebraska, but across the state,” said Brandt, now in his first year representing the largely rural District 32.
Nebraska started a detailed broadband mapping project about a decade ago using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, which is based in Lyons.
By providing connectivity data down to the address or parcel, local, state and federal governments, along with technology providers, could determine how to best deploy resources in order to broaden connectivity across the U.S.
When the federal stimulus funding dried up in 2015, Hladik said states were left to their own devices, which only widened the disparity from region to region.
States such as Minnesota that continued the project using state funds and federal grants "have been blowing other states out of the water in the border-to-border adoption of broadband internet to rural areas."
Nebraska, meanwhile, has relied on the data compiled by internet service providers in forms to the FCC that show which "census blocks" they connect with broadband internet.
Census blocks can be a few city blocks or several square miles in western Nebraska, Hladik said, depending on the population of those areas. There are some census blocks in the U.S. larger in size than the state of Connecticut.
The FCC form submitted by internet service providers big and small only requires those companies to notify the government if they provide broadband internet to the census block — not an individual home.
"In this program, the provider only has to tell which blocks it serves," Hladik said. "If it serves just one house, then all the houses (within the census block) are counted as served."
Benes said she relished the chance to start a business in Nebraska, and has moved into the home her grandfather grew up in, but added the state needs to address the issue to foster future growth.
"We're not going to recruit young people to Nebraska if we can't provide basic services like high-speed internet," she said. "The internet is very much becoming a necessity."
Brandt's bill does come with a fiscal note, a cost of upgrading and maintaining the online mapping system over time that would be paid for through a fee charged to cellphone users in the state.
Since it avoids dipping into the state's general fund, the bill could find a path in a Legislature looking to control costs amid a bleak state revenue outlook.
“We need reliable, robust connectivity in these rural areas,” he said. “This is just the first step in getting us there.”