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Rural Lancaster County would get high-speed internet access under proposed broadband expansion
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Rural Lancaster County would get high-speed internet access under proposed broadband expansion

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Internet access for rural Lancaster County residents and those who live in its small towns and villages is likely to get significantly faster in the next year.

Lancaster County commissioners are considering a $12 million project using federal stimulus money that would install the same broadband infrastructure Lincoln has — lines of underground conduit that carriers can lease to bring wireless service to rural communities.

David Young, the city’s chief information officer, said the project would put about 170 miles of conduit pipe around the county — including running to all its towns, villages and unincorporated communities. It would also run near schools and county maintenance sites, and include extension points that connect to neighboring counties so they can connect to the infrastructure in the future.

County Board members said they supported the idea of extending broadband to rural areas, but before approving the plan wanted to get more detailed information on cost and make sure the new federal infrastructure bill would not provide a better source of funding.

Young said at this point it appears federal infrastructure money would come to the state, not directly to counties or municipalities.

#10598 Lancaster County broadband map

“There’s unanimity,” said board member Rick Vest. “We all want to expand broadband, we just need the right plan to do it.”

The city has about 4,000 miles of conduit, an effort the city began years ago in the downtown area and that eventually covered the entire city. Today, 13 carriers, including Allo Communications, lease the conduit to provide service to customers.

Leasing revenue can only be used for broadband maintenance and expansion, Young said.

The carriers own the conduit that runs to homes in residential neighborhoods and businesses, and the city owns the conduit that runs under the arterials to the neighborhoods, Young said.

The project with the county would work similarly, with the county owning the conduit in rural areas that runs to the communities and private carriers owning the conduit that runs to homes.

Todd Heyne, director of plant operations at Allo Communications, said the company could not afford to provide service to Lancaster County’s rural residents without the county providing the conduit.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission just awarded grants to Allo to connect homeowners in Sprague, Holland and Martell to high-speed internet, part of $17.8 million the commission awarded to providers through the Nebraska Broadband Bridge Program.

First round of broadband funding to connect 12,000 Nebraska homes to high-speed internet

It cost the city $20-$25 a foot to install the conduit in Lincoln — a much denser and more urban area and therefore more expensive than the county, Young said. Having that infrastructure there means it cost carriers about $1 a square foot to install the fiber in Lincoln.

Lincoln's infrastructure means it now has the sixth-fastest broadband speeds of any city in the country, Young said. In 2012, it ranked 121st.

The county would see a similar bump. Now residents get about 25 megabyte internet speeds. The project would increase it to 1 gig, or 1,000 megabytes.

"It's a big deal," Young said. "I think it's a very good thing."

If the county began the project by Feb. 1, with construction starting in mid-April, it would be done by June 1, 2023.

The infrastructure would be managed through an interlocal agreement with the city’s information services.

The County Board must approve all the requests for proposals and contracts, and could choose to do all or a part of the project, Young said.

The board is expected to make a decision within the next few weeks.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

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