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Rural internet

Randy Flint, a technician with White Construction Co., Inc., installs fiber optic cable along a county road in Black Earth, Wisconsin, in 2016.

Rural electrification in the 1930s was critical to allowing sparsely populated regions to compete with urban centers for residents and business – akin to the need for high-speed internet in rural areas today.

Broadband can serve as the great equalizer, allowing those in even the most isolated corners of the state to conduct business and communicate with the rest of the globe. Several entrepreneurs have capitalized on their broadband connections to launch successful ecommerce operations, while countless Nebraska workers and companies benefit from telecommuting.

Despite the importance of high-speed internet, its availability is spotty in much of greater Nebraska. Speeds, too, aren’t necessarily accurate for every address.

Plymouth Sen. Tom Brandt has reintroduced legislation that aims to provide a measure of broadband at the most detailed level possible for the entire state. This proposal is an intriguing idea to better map internet access in every corner of Nebraska.

When Brandt met with the Journal Star editorial board during last fall’s campaign, he reiterated the importance of broadband in his mostly rural district. He said the data weren’t granular enough to provide residents the necessary detail to make informed decisions.

His bill, LB549, proposes changing that by requiring every internet provider serving rural areas to document the capability of service for every address and land parcel with the Nebraska Public Service Commission. The plan builds upon the state’s Nebraska Broadband Mapping Project, initially funded about a decade ago using federal dollars that have since subsided.

Since then, Nebraska has based that upon data internet service providers have compiled for the FCC. However, the smallest level of detail on those forms is census blocks – some of which can stretch for several square miles in the Sandhills. If one address in a block has high-speed access, the entire block is listed as having such service.

The problem lies when a portion, but not the entirety, of a census block has access to broadband internet. Residents or business owners in that area could be led to believe they’d have much higher speeds than they actually do, based on the information available.

Perhaps our only hesitation with the idea is its funding source. The legislation proposes increasing fees charged to cellphone users to pay for the necessary geographic information systems map, though Nebraska ranks fourth nationally in cell taxes already, according to the Tax Foundation. This won’t deplete general fund dollars in a legislative session where revenue forecasts appear grim.

Still, it’s worth weighing this cost against the benefits of this proposal. The digital divide evident among various rural parts of Nebraska needs to be closed – and such detailed mapping would help provide a clearer picture of the state’s true broadband status.

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