Silver Lining of COVID-19: High Speed Internet Spreading, Too

By 
Carol Dennison
League of Women Voters of Nebraska

These days there’s so much bad news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic that Americans have quit looking for good news. 

But a rainbow, laden with golden opportunity, is shining through this crisis.  Nebraska is on the brink of building high-speed internet connections for millions of rural Nebraskans. 

On July 27, LB 996, sponsored by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, was signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts. This bill facilitates the collection of data from rural internet providers by the Nebraska Public Service Commission to determine the real story of how accessible high-speed internet is to individual households. That information will possibly open doors to Federal Communications Commission grants to increase access.

Another bill that paves the way for better rural broadband, LB 992, was sponsored by Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson on July 27. Based on recommendations of the Nebraska Rural Task Force, it addresses a myriad of issues related to coordination of broadband at the state and county levels; cooperation between utilities and broadband suppliers; and funding incentives, including the Nebraska Telecommunications Universal Service Fund, to benefit public library access. It, too, promises to be successful when it comes to a vote in the Nebraska Legislature.

In addition to the data collected through LB 996 and the potential support of LB 992, Governor Rickets has designated $40 million to fund Remote Access Grants with federal COVID-19 funds to address the broadband needs of rural Nebraskans. Communities with between 1,000-5,000 residents could apply for grants through July 24, working with local internet providers to complete the grant application.   According to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, priority will be given to areas that are underserved. Notification of grants is scheduled to be announced in August 2020, and funded projects must be completed by Dec. 31, 2020.

The League of Women Voters of Nebraska supported LB 996 as its priority bill of the year. We could not imagine a bill that would better serve so many needs of rural Nebraskans. It will provide the foundation for building high-speed internet access that helps students learn; businesses and farmers market their products; laid-off workers search for jobs online; patients benefit from telehealth care; and in a time of great isolation; family and friends to stay in touch which are all obvious wins.

The league also sees a door opening to better democracy in this broadband expansion. It would make it easy for people to complete their census online; to learn about issues of redistricting; and, when voting, to access vote411.org. This league service shares voting and candidate information in all 93 Nebraska counties for both the primary and general elections. Between LB 996 and the COVID-19 Broadband grants, greater numbers of Nebraskans are set to enjoy more civic opportunities and lives enriched by the resources available through broadband connections.

If rural Nebraskans are impatient with the slow crawl to high-speed internet in their area, they should let their state senator, their Nebraska Public Service Commissioner and their internet provider know their stories. Also, they can consult the Nebraska Rural Broadband Task Force about steps to bring broadband to their community.

Find the Nebraska Rural Broadband Task Force website at ruralbroadband.nebraska.gov. Find your senator at nebraskalegislature.gov. Find your member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission at psc.nebraska.gov. Find voter information at lwv.org/local-leagues/lwv-nebraska.

 

Carol Dennison is the co-chair of social policy for the League of Women Voters of Nebraska. The League of Women Voters encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.

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