Nebraska’s Quandary: Building out the Internet for All
LINCOLN, Neb. — In Nebraska officials want to ensure the millions set aside for broadband buildout during the pandemic are used. However, it’s going to be hard for the rural state where one company recently declined to use $13 million from the state’s Universal Service fund to build out its network.
The Public Service Commission recently announced a reverse auction to give the $13 million previously allocated to Frontier Communications to another provider who can build out the service in those specific underserved areas in the middle and eastern parts of the state.
“Frontier, for whatever reason, has kind of declined to try and use the money we’re giving them to make sure to serve those areas,” said Cullen Robbins, director of the Telecom Division of Nebraska’s Public Service Commission.
“The point of the reverse auction is to sort of figure out what other entities are willing to serve those areas. We don’t really know. We are not quite sure to be perfectly honest how much interest there will be in those areas.”
To bring internet to the state’s most rural residents it costs tens of thousands of dollars per mile of cable to build out broadband access, depending on the geography, Robbins said. That quickly adds up in a rural state where for every square mile of the state, there are about 25 Nebraskans, according to the 2020 Census,
Three southern counties — Red Willow, Harlan and Webster — bordering Kansas, have numerous areas up for auction, according to the state’s broadband map. And in those counties, the population density is even sparser with about 10 residents per square mile, according to 2020 census data.
“The money from the Nebraska Universal Service Fund is a state program meant to maintain and build out broadband infrastructure, especially for those harder-to-reach areas that are more expensive to reach and maintain,” Robbins said. “The state recently approved the reverse auction process to create a ‘use it, or lose it’ scenario where they had to use the money that we gave them to build out new networks,” Robbins said in a phone interview Wednesday.
The state fund is one of the options for getting broadband to all of the nearly 2 million residents. The legislature also created a grant program and the state is set to receive some of the $45 billion set aside by the federal government’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program that’s been called the Internet for All initiative by the Biden administration.
However, even with the reverse auction, it’s possible there won’t be any interest from broadband companies to build out to those most rural areas.
The auction essentially covers “all of the areas Frontier covers that do not really have service today that we define as broadband. Those are going to be the eligible areas, and that’s a lot of areas. So we would expect that there will be areas that don’t get any interest,” Robbins said.
If the funds aren’t used through this reverse auction, they will be added to a new round of funding, he said.
These are all “pieces of the puzzle to try and solve the overall issue,” Robbins said. “Even then you know it’s hard to say whether we’re going to hit every single unserved location in the state, but that’s our goal to try and get as close as we can with all these different tools.”
The state has a “mosaic” of broadband providers with Frontier being one of the larger, but not the largest provider, Robbins explained. And while people typically think of the plains state as very flat, the hills, trees and crops all create barriers for installing broadband cable lines, he said.
He’s hopeful the patchwork of other state and federal funding opportunities will create a stronger network across the state.
As of 2018, 86.5% of Nebraska’s households had internet access, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
However, it’s unknown exactly how many Nebraskans have broadband access because the current federal broadband map likely undercounts the households without access, Robbins explained. He expects the new FCC map that is expected this fall will give state officials better insight into the areas where people still need the internet.
And if state and federal funds can hook up every Nebraskan household to the internet, Robbins is wondering how they will pay for maintenance. Especially for rural areas that don’t serve as many people, he said.
“Down the line somewhere, there’s going to be the question of once these networks are built, how are the costs to maintain them going to be covered,” Robbins said. “These are like any asset, like a road. Building it once is great, but we can’t just build it and forget about it. There’s going to be costs to maintain and operate these networks.”
The Well News reached out to Frontier Communications for this story and will update if the company responds.
Madeline can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ByMaddieHughes
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