EDITORIAL: Rethinking Rural Broadband

A recent Associated press article (“High-speed internet shortage a big concern in rural Nebraska,” Nov. 11) reported on the lack of affordable high-speed access in many rural areas of the state.

Several reasons were cited, including cost and workforce shortages.  Without question, work needs to be done to accelerate the deployment of broadband infrastructure to all areas of Nebraska.

As telecommunications companies that are providing broadband services to their rural customers at affordable rates, we think it is important to recognize policy changes currently underway that are focused on improving broadband connectivity with the hope of creating opportunities for rural Nebraskans.

The article focuses on the difference between broadband in urban and rural areas.  A look at rural Nebraska, however, reveals a more complex picture.

One finds that the digital divide does not split neatly along urban and rural lines.  Rather, it splits between rural areas, where farmers and ranchers on one side of the divide have state-of-the-art connectivity and excellent service, and those on the other side are stuck back in the 20th century.

The reason is that some telephone companies serving rural areas used subsidies to build fiber throughout their territories, and others did not.  More than a dozen rural telecommunications companies, including the companies signing this op-ed, responsibly stewarded past federal and state support to deploy fiber to serve their customers.  Farms and ranchers in those rural areas are connected with quality service on par with service found in the city, and at comparable rates.

Mary Ridder, chair of the Public Service Commission, is correct when pointing to cost as a key reason some areas of the state lag in broadband connectivity.  Deploying infrastructure in areas currently lacking service will be expensive.  Accelerating the pace of deployment will require ingenuity and cooperative use of resources.

Two years ago, under the leadership of Sen. Curt Friesen, who chairs the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, legislation was passed that calls upon the commission to rethink old ways of subsidizing (or supporting) high-cost service.

The law allows for the redirection of support from old incumbent telephone companies that did not build fiber in the area to progressive telecommunications companies that are dedicated to offering broadband services in rural areas at affordable rates.

In implementing the new law, the commission is actively loosening old telephone territorial boundaries and setting up processes for redirecting support to speed broadband deployment.  Building the necessary infrastructure will not happen overnight, but the commission is putting the right processes in place to significantly accelerate deployment.

Establishing a process allowing for redirection of support is not the only change underway at the commission.  The commission overhauled the support mechanisms two years ago under leadership of Ridder and former Commissioner Frank Landis.

The new system pays formula-based support for operating an expensive system that no business case can be made for in rural areas.  Support is available to cover part of the costs of deployment – trenching, installing fiber, hooking it up to electronics all over the system – but only after construction.

The system is simple, transparent and ensures accountability.  The company first must deploy broadband infrastructure in rural areas, then the state will foot part of the bill after it sees proof of construction.  This new system has been in place for a year.  It is already speeding the pace of broadband deployment in areas once lacking.

The commission’s reforms will continue to accelerate broadband deployment in rural areas.  It just needs willing partners to make that happen.  Once the commission establishes a process for redirecting support, our companies are eager to deploy broadband infrastructure in areas where it is now lacking.  To do so, we look forward to partnering with public utilities and existing smaller companies and wireless internet providers.

The focus of broadband policy changes discussed above has been the customer’s needs in both urban and rural areas of the state.  Challenges remain, but rural Nebraska faces great opportunities as state leaders such as Friesen and Ridder force and continue to shape long-needed change.

Tonya Mayer, of Hemingford Cooperative Telephone, writes on behalf of Arapahoe Telephone, Benkelman Telephone, Cambridge Telephone, Cozad Telephone, Diller Telephone, Glenwood Telephone, Hemingford Cooperative Telephone, Hooper Telephone, Mainstay Communications, Plainview Telephone, Southeast Nebraska Communications and Stanton Telecom.

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