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Editorial, 9/21: Federal funds are the next step to getting statewide broadband for Nebraska

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In effect: Rural broadband

Lancaster County is considering a $12 million project using federal stimulus money to expand broadband infrastructure so residents will have high-speed internet access.

Nearly $200 million in federal funds will soon be aimed at expanding broadband internet access across the state, creating what Gov. Pete Ricketts called “basic infrastructure” that is crucial for Nebraska for the 21st century and beyond.

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Treasury recently approved $87.7 million to increase broadband access to an estimated 21,000 homes and businesses in the state's 1st and 3rd congressional districts, as outlined in a bill (LB1024) passed earlier this year by the Legislature.

It must be noted that then 1st District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and 3rd District Rep. Adrian Smith voted against the bipartisan congressional infrastructure bill from which the funding stems, as did Sen. Ben Sasse.

Unlike the majority of the Nebraska all-GOP congressional delegation, Sen. Deb Fischer, a long time advocate of expanding broadband access, voted in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure bill as did 2nd District Rep. Don Bacon.

Fischer also added a provision to the legislation to enhance coordination of the federal government’s broadband buildout programs, ensuring they are managed efficiently.

But Ricketts, a fellow Republican, is embracing the cash flowing from Washington, which, he wisely notes, will allow broadband access to rapidly expand across the state.

In fact, Ricketts said he expects the state to receive more than $107 million from two other federal programs that were included in the infrastructure bill, plus a federal grant that’s available for internet service providers and public power districts, creating the $200 million pool that will fund needed broadband expansion in rural Nebraska.

In addition to paying for connections, some of the federal funds will be used to educate the public on how they can get internet access. A new website, broadband.nebraska.gov, was launched last week to provide a “one-stop shop” listing of broadband programs that are available to residents and businesses, now and in the future.

That site should provide important, necessary communication with rural Nebraskans as they look forward to the broadband access that has been a state goal for the four years since the Legislature established a broadband task force in 2018.

Some $70 million in federal funds received during the COVID-19 pandemic has already been used by the state to create about 50,000 broadband hookups.

Exactly how many more connections the new funding will create is unclear, nor is the timing of when new connections can be made. The new program is still in the planning stages and must be approved at the federal level before it can be implemented.

But, using the 50,000 connections for $70 million as a guideline, a rough estimate would be more than 125,000 new hookups, likely over the next year or two.

That number would go a very long way to providing near universal broadband, which is absolutely necessary for rural Nebraska and the state as a whole to thrive in the digital era and compete economically and in lifestyle amenities.

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