Nebraska looks to deploy millions of dollars to address broadband needs
Ricketts opposed ‘partisan’ ARPA but says money is available, so the state will seek it
Gov. Pete Ricketts at a State Capitol press conference in January 2022. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts again on Wednesday criticized the “partisan” American Rescue Plan Act pushed by President Joe Biden to help the country recover from the pandemic, saying it is fueling today’s high inflation.
But the Republican governor said that doesn’t mean Nebraska isn’t going after the millions and millions of dollars of federal funds that ARPA is sending to the states to improve high-speed internet service.
“The money’s available, we’re going to take advantage of it,” Ricketts said. “It doesn’t mean the stimulus package was the right policy for our country.”
On Wednesday, the governor announced that the state will launch a new website Monday to help Nebraskans and local companies get involved in the deployment of nearly $200 million in recent federal funds to bring broadband to under- and unserved areas of the state.
The state was just awarded $87.7 million for broadband improvement via ARPA, which was passed along partisan lines by Congress. Nebraska expects to receive at least $100 million through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program authorized through Biden’s infrastructure bill.
CARES Act under Trump
Those monies are in addition to $30 million the state received to help companies expand high-speed internet through the CARES Act, passed under former President Donald Trump, and $40 million allocated by Nebraska through the Broadband Bridge Act. Another $7.2 million in federal funds are headed to the state to better educate Nebraskans on using the internet.
High-speed internet, Ricketts said, is essential for growing businesses, educating our citizens, using high-tech farm equipment and expanding access to health care.
He related the story of a Mullen High School student who had to drive 10 miles on his family’s remote ranch to get a strong enough internet connection to do homework. One pig farmer, Ricketts said, was able to double his operation once he had high-speed internet.
“When we have it, we can expand,” he said.
At a press conference, Patrick Redmond, the state’s broadband coordinator, said Nebraska plans to use planning funds allocated through the BEAD program to determine “the gaps” in internet coverage across the state and where funds should be deployed.
The more “needs” the state can show through its own mapping of internet speeds, the more money Nebraska is likely to receive, Ricketts said.
As of February 2021, according to Ricketts, an estimated 80,000 Nebraska households did not have access to internet speeds of 25 Mbit/s download and 3 Mbit/s upload, which is considered minimal broadband service. An estimated 150,000 Nebraskans did not have access to 100/20 speed service in 2021.
Internet speeds of 100/100 are being sought through the state’s broadband programs.
PSC already distributing funds
Dan Watermeier, the chairman of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, said that elected body is well-situated to distribute the federal funds the state is getting for broadband.
The PSC, he added, has already been involved in distributing funds through the state and federal Universal Service Funds to expand high-speed internet. It is also in its second round of distributing Broadband Bridge Act monies.
“We’ve been in this business a long time,” Watermeier said.
Among other information, the new website, “broadband.nebraska.gov” will provide schedules on “listening sessions” for Nebraskans to weigh in on high-speed internet needs and issues.
Ricketts said today’s high inflation can be directly tied to the 2021 ARPA passage, which provided $1.9 trillion in federal funds to jumpstart the economy after the pandemic.
Analysts have said ARPA contributed to about half of today’s inflation, with higher energy prices, as well as post-COVID-19 supply chain problems and labor shortages, also contributing.
Former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Kerrey, in a recent commentary in the Nebraska Examiner, criticized politicians who have failed to given enough credit for “a lot of good” the ARPA funds have done for Nebraska.
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