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Plan to spend $40 million on broadband expansion in Nebraska advances
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Plan to spend $40 million on broadband expansion in Nebraska advances

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Nebraska lawmakers gave an initial thumbs up Tuesday to Gov. Pete Ricketts' plan to spend $40 million on expanding high-speed rural internet services.

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LB388 advanced on a 44-0 vote after senators rejected an amendment that would have allowed cities and towns to enter the broadband services market.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha introduced the amendment, saying that broadband should be considered a critical infrastructure need and that private telecommunications companies have not stepped up to serve the whole state. 

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He urged colleagues to look to Nebraska's history of public power as a model, as well as to the example of other states that are allowing cities to offer broadband. His amendment would have repealed a law that bars municipalities from providing broadband or internet services.

Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk argued strongly in favor of the amendment.

He said private companies have gotten federal and state money collected through fees on cellphones and landlines for years. Yet large areas of the state lack adequate broadband service, especially higher-speed service, and it hurts the state's economic development. 

According to a recent estimate, 80,000 of Nebraska’s rural residents lack internet that delivers speeds of 25/3 (25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload), with nearly twice that number lacking 100/100 speeds.

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A 2019 state task force study found that Nebraska ranked behind all of its neighboring states except Wyoming in broadband availability. A year ago, BroadbandNow, a California-based research firm, ranked Nebraska 48th in terms of access, price and speed.

"They're taking us for a ride and we need to take over," Flood said. "How can you expect someone to move to a town when you can't get Netflix?"

But Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, the chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, opposed the amendment. Friesen introduced LB388 on behalf of the governor.

He argued that Nebraska just started focusing on broadband in recent years, with the state's Universal Service Fund devoting $106.5 million to the effort over the last five years. He said that effort has produced progress. He said communities can push broadband by setting up public-private partnerships.

Sen. Mike Moser, a past mayor of Columbus, also argued against the amendment. He said cities and towns don't have the expertise to operate broadband services and they would have the same problem as private companies in covering the cost of reaching far-flung residents.

"I just don't think this is a good solution," he said. "I don't see how it's the panacea for the problem."

Wayne's amendment failed 24-20. But he promised to bring a more expansive version of the idea during second-round debate.

As advanced, LB388 would put $20 million a year into grants for projects that increase access to high-speed broadband. It marks the first proposal to use state tax dollars for that purpose. 

The grants would prioritize projects in areas with less than 25/3 speeds that have no projects planned or that have projects that will take more than 24 months to complete. Areas with less than 100/20 speeds would be a lower priority.

The bill would require grant recipients to upgrade service to at least 100/100 within 18 months and to put up matching funds. Internet speeds for the completed project would be tested and the grant money would have to be repaid if the speeds fall short of the 100/100 goal. Friesen said the speed tests would provide accountability. 

The bill also would direct broadband expansion funds expected from the federal Rescue Act into the grant program. The federal legislation allocated $7 billion nationwide to the effort.

The pandemic increased attention to broadband access by forcing many people to work from home and students to get their schooling online. But concern has been growing as business and agriculture increasingly rely on high-tech applications. 

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