COVID-19 forced much of how we to live day in and day out – whether it’s working, communicating or learning – online at rapid speed earlier this year.
One of the unintended consequences of this shift was the exposure of the digital divide in Nebraska, which is felt most acutely in the state’s rural areas. However, an expedited investment of federal pandemic relief money will help to close that gap.
As we wrote early in this pandemic, Gov. Ricketts’ plan to use $29.5 million in CARES Act funds to expand broadband access was laudable. In May, the governor told the Journal Star editorial board he’d have used even more of the money allotted to the state if he thought it could have been done before the deadline set by Congress.
We said then that this focus was wise. Now that the specifics of Ricketts’ plan are in hand, it’s worth appreciating the size of this sorely needed effort.
Consider the scope of three elements within this package: the number of homes connected to broadband, the locations served and the speed of the forthcoming service.
The governor said a minimum of 17,600 housing units will have access to this high-speed internet by the end of 2020. If that smallest figure is indeed met, it represents more than 2% of all homes in the entire state, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.
While the number may seem small, recall that roughly two-thirds of Nebraskans live in one of the state’s three designated metropolitan areas: Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island. Much of the remainder lives in micropolitan areas with anchor cities of more than 10,000 residents, where high-speed internet access tends to be readily accessible.
For those who live outside our 12 metropolitan counties and nine micropolitan counties, though, such connectivity is far from guaranteed. Nor is it in rural areas adjacent to these larger communities.
That’s why such significant investment – involving 20 companies performing 60 projects in 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties – is needed and welcome, bringing a digital lifeline to areas in danger of falling even further behind the times.
The Federal Communications Commission’s standards of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Megabits per second upload don’t represent world-beating speed. But those will certainly help rural Nebraskans keep pace with the ever-increasing speed of technology.
In a day and age where our ongoing pandemic has necessitated high-speed internet to support working and learning from home to ensure safety, the expansion of rural broadband equates to a 21st-century version of the rural electrification seen in the 1930s.
Nebraska is taking this massive leap forward at a time when its rural citizens need it most.
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