Capital Projects Fund Helps Build Nebraska's Broadband Bridge

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Digital Beat

Capital Projects Fund Helps Build Nebraska's Broadband Bridge

“In our digital world, high-speed broadband internet is basic infrastructure we need to grow our entire state.”

—Governor Pete Ricketts

Nebraska adopted a state broadband plan in 2014 setting goals of extending broadband service and adoption to 90 percent of Nebraska households by 2020. Still short of its connectivity goals, the state ramped up efforts toward universal broadband during the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts fueled with federal support. This week, the U.S. Department of Treasury approved Nebraska's latest plans to connect everyone in the state. 

The Digital Divide in Nebraska

Broadband of at least 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up was available to 84.6% of Nebraskans in 2015, up from 79.3% in 2014. Nebraska ranked 34th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia on this measure. 

But average advertised download and upload speeds in Nebraska lagged behind the United States and most neighboring states. Nebraska had an average advertised fixed download speed of 20.4 Mbps compared to the U.S average of 32.6 Mbps and an average advertised fixed upload speed of 8.5 Mbps compared to the U.S. average of 12.8 Mbps. There were significant differences in average upload and download speeds between the state’s more populous and less populous counties. Nebraska counties with populations greater than 20,000 had an average advertised fixed download speed of 36.5 Mbps and an average advertised fixed upload speed of 16.2 Mbps. In comparison, Nebraska counties with populations less than 20,000 had an average advertised fixed download speed of 16.8 Mbps and an average advertised fixed upload speed of 6.8 Mbps.

Although the data would have seemed to indicate that there is an urban-rural divide in Nebraska, some rural counties performed quite well on several of the indicators. For example, Keith County with a population of 8,062 had the highest advertised upload and download speeds in the state at the time.

Nebraska lagged behind the U.S. and neighboring states in the subscription rate to higher speed tiers of broadband (then defined as 10 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up or greater). In over half of the counties in Nebraska, fewer than 20% of households subscribed to broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up or greater.

Nebraska's Broadband Programs

In June 2020, Gov. Ricketts laid out his plans on how to spend the first $387 million given to the state under the CARES Act. Expanding broadband to rural areas was one of four priorities. The state devoted $29.5 million to its Rural Broadband Remote Access Grant Program in hopes of improving internet connectivity and providing more opportunities for tele-health services. 

In May 2021, the state enacted the Nebraska Broadband Bridge Act, a law aimed at bringing fast, reliable broadband connectivity to an estimated 30,000 households. The law created the Nebraska Broadband Bridge Program to facilitate and fund the deployment of broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas of Nebraska. The state appropriated $20 million to this program annually beginning in fiscal year 2021-2022.

The Broadband Bridge Program was designed to assist with costly deployment projects that might not otherwise occur without public assistance. The law gave the Nebraska Public Service Commission the authority to grant awards to assist applicants with eligible infrastructure installation costs for qualifying projects. Qualifying projects must provide broadband Internet service scalable to one hundred megabits per second for downloading and one hundred megabits per second for uploading, or greater (100Mbps/100Mbps). Applicants were required to provide matching funds equal to at least fifty percent of the total development costs of the project. The maximum grant amount awarded cannot exceed $5 million for a single project.

Eligible applicants for this program can include:

  1. a broadband Internet service provider including any telecommunications company, cable television company, or wireless network provider that provides broadband Internet service;
  2. a cooperative;
  3. a political subdivision;
  4. an Indian tribe. [Applications from a political subdivision or an Indian tribe shall be made as part of a public-private partnership with a broadband Internet service provider.]

A project involving development of a broadband network in an unserved area or an underserved area may be considered. An unserved area is an area of Nebraska in which locations lack access to broadband Internet service at speeds of at least twenty-five megabits per second for downloading and three megabits per second for uploading (25Mbps/3Mbps). An underserved area is an area of Nebraska in which locations lack access to broadband Internet service at speeds of at least one-hundred megabits per second for downloading and twenty megabits per second for uploading (100Mbps/20Mbps).

Applications involving underserved areas must also include a digital inclusion plan that demonstrates access to and use of information and communication technologies by all individuals and communities in the project area, including the most disadvantaged individuals and communities. The plan must describe the carrier’s efforts to ensure members of the community to be served will be able to afford the services offered, and must describe any discounts and/or support programs to be offered for low-income individuals. Acceptable digital inclusion plans must not impose data caps on consumer usage.

In 2021, the Broadband Bridge Program awarded a total of $19.2 million in grants to 19 providers across the state. Communities that benefitted included Ansley, Arcadia, Burwell, Thedford, Mullen, and rural areas near Ravenna. 

In 2022 the legislature updated the law, reducing the matching grants for projects located in high-cost areas from 50 percent of project costs to 25 percent. The update also extended the deadline for applications to be filed with the Nebraska PSC from July 1 to Oct. 1, with grants being awarded no later than Jan. 31 of the following year, beginning in 2022. Grant recipients must now commit to maintaining a minimum 100 Mbps of download and upload speeds for all locations for which they have received grant funding and agree to offer broadband in the project area for 15 years. The update also includes provisions that:

  • provide up to $2 million in annual grant funding to provide precision agriculture connectivity of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speed to accelerate rural economic development and provide high-speed internet connectivity to farm sites in unserved areas of the state;
  • allow the Nebraska PSC to create and maintain a Nebraska location fabric broadband access map;
  • require the Nebraska PSC’s weighted application scoring system to include the ability to offer rates in a project area comparable to rates offered by the applicant outside the project area; and
  • provide for an expedited wire-crossing permit process for telecommunications companies wishing to cross railroad rights of way.

Capital Projects Fund Support

On August 30, 2022, the U.S. Treasury approved Nebraska's plan to invest $87.7 million in broadband infrastructure projects. The state estimates that the investment, 68% of its total Capital Projects Fund allocation, will help connect 23% of the locations in Nebraska that still lack broadband service. Each of the broadband providers funded by the Nebraska Broadband Bridge Program will participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program—a $30 per month subsidy for low-income families.

The Nebraska PSC will partner with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to administer the new funds.

“This new funding along with what is currently in place will make a big impact on helping to provide broadband to the unserved and underserved areas of our state,” said Dan Watermeier, the chairman of the Nebraska PSC.  

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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