Palmyra (copy)

Palmyra, just east of Lincoln, has a brand-new high school football field, but rural areas nearby lack broadband Internet service fast enough for local school kids to finish online assignments.

Modern society depends in countless ways on computers and Internet connections. Businesses depend on that connectivity. Farmers are increasingly reliant on it. So are schools and other institutions.

The findings of a state task force point to the troubling lack of high-speech digital access for many rural Nebraskans and offer options to help address the need.

Thirty-seven percent of rural Nebraskans lack access to high-speed broadband service. Such service currently is unavailable for 84% of public libraries in towns with a population of less than 2,500.

“We have teachers not assigning homework because they know that 20% of their students can’t get it done,” said Burke Brown, the tech coordinator at Palmyra, about 20 miles southeast of Lincoln. “So many of our households don’t have broadband fast enough to do homework.”

Many rural parts of Nebraska have Internet access, but at much lower capacity. And there are fewer providers to compete and hold down prices. Residents in some rural parts of the state have to use satellite-based Internet, which is more expensive. Nationwide, residents in low-population areas pay an average of 37% more for broadband service compared with people in larger communities, and that pattern appears to hold true in Nebraska, the task force reported.

Testifiers at a recent hearing of the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee were right in saying unless Nebraska addresses the issue, businesses and students in the state’s rural communities are at risk of being left behind.

The difficulty of extending high-speed Internet stems from basic economics; the costs are considerably higher to provide service over large areas with small populations. Telephone companies have faced this same challenges going back to the start of their industry. “There’s no real business case for putting broadband out in some of those areas,” said State Sen. Curt Friesen, a task force member and chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. “It’s going to be a challenge to get service there.”

But, Friesen rightly says, the state should explore options to help. The Nebraska Public Service Commission is drafting rules and regulations for one approach: reverse auctions. The state would seek bids for Internet service in a rural area, with the lowest bidder prevailing and receiving a subsidy from the state’s universal service fund, whose revenues come from fees on phone bills.

Another option is applying for federal grants that help pay for extending fiber-optic lines to small-town libraries.

Lack of high-speed Internet is holding back opportunity in our state’s rural communities. Nebraska needs to do all it can to lessen the problem.

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