Sleuthing discovers thousands of locations missed as ‘unserved’ by broadband on federal map
Discovery by Clatonia farmer could mean tens of millions more in federal funds for Nebraska
Emily Haxby, a farmer and Gage County commissioner, used a laptop and help from the state’s public power districts to discover hundreds of “unserved” broadband locations in the state. (Courtesy of Emily Haxby)
LINCOLN — Using a laptop at her farm near Clatonia, and some help from the state’s public power districts, a rural broadband advocate has uncovered oversights that may brings millions of extra federal dollars to Nebraska to expand high-speed internet service.
Emily Haxby, who also serves on the Gage County Board, said she started doubting the accuracy of federal maps showing areas that were “unserved” by broadband.
Just in her own rural neighborhood, Haxby said, she could tell there were at least a dozen rural homes, machine shops and other locations that were listed as “served” by broadband when they weren’t.
That’s important because a new pile of federal money — $42.45 billion via the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program — is being distributed on the basis of how many “unserved” locations there are in each state compared to other states.
So, Haxby did some digital sleuthing.
And with the help of the Nebraska Public Power District and the Nebraska Rural Electric Association, she found 11,367 farms, homes and other locations across the state that should have been labeled as “unserved” on federal broadband maps.
The discovery could mean tens of millions of extra federal dollars for Nebraska to get broadband to unserved areas, according to Pat Pope, the former president/CEO of the Nebraska Public Power District.
‘Beyond the call of duty’
“This was above and beyond the call of duty,” said Pope of Haxby’s discoveries.
It’s the kind of work, Pope said, that should have been done by a state broadband office, something Gov. Jim Pillen has proposed creating at the urging of Pope and others.
A proposal to do that, Legislative Bill 683, recently advanced from first-round debate in the State Legislature. Pillen has yet to name a director of the new broadband office. Haxby has applied for the job.
“The real key now is to get the right person to run that office, and I think it’s Emily,” Pope said. “She’s lived this, she’s breathed this, she’s felt the pain of living in rural Gage County without adequate broadband.”
State Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, a key senator on broadband issues, said that Haxby’s “out of the box” work is what’s needed to accomplish the elusive goal of getting high-speed internet across the state.
Under the BEAD Act, part of the Biden administration’s “Internet for All” initiative, each state is assured of getting at least $100 million. The priority is to fund projects that reach currently unserved areas. The FCC defines “unserved” areas as those with internet service that is less than 25/3 — 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 mbps upload.
Internet speeds are important — the higher the speeds, the more capacity to operate computers, play video game or stream TV shows at a time.
Community input sought
The Nebraska Public Service Commission, along with the Nebraska Broadband Office and the Office of the OCIO/NITC, has scheduled a series of sessions to get community input on improving broadband access:
- Wednesday, 5:30 p.m., Hall County Extension, 3180 W. Highway 34, Grand Island.
- April 26, noon, Niobrara Village Fire Hall, 259 Spruce Ave., Niobrara.
- April 26, 5 p.m., Norfolk Public Library, 308 W. Prospect Avenue, Norfolk.
But additional federal funds will be doled out based on how many locations a state can show are unserved in comparison with other states. So showing more “unserved” areas should result in more federal funds.
Haxby became interested in broadband coverage after some federal American Rescue Plan Act funds became available to her county to expand high-speed service in rural Nebraska.
Through her work on the Gage County Board, Haxby helped put together a collaboration with an internet provider to string high-speed, fiber internet to nearly 1,000 locations. It’s a partnership that other counties in the state are now seeking to duplicate, she said.
During that project, Haxby was able to show that several farms, rural homes and repair shops in Gage County where internet was needed were being listed on Federal Communications Commission maps as either “underserved” (less than 100/20 mbps) or “served” (speeded above that) when they were really “unserved.”
That led to speculation about how many locations statewide were wrongly labeled.
‘This is bad’
“This is bad, and this is how our funding is coming,” Haxby said.
It led to enlisting NPPD and the NREA to provide electric meter data to show locations where internet was needed. Then, Haxby and a fellow with the Americorps program working for the Southeast Nebraska Development District, Oliver Borchers-Williams, sifted through the data to identify farms and homes missing on the FCC map.
The FCC is allowing states to challenge its map prior to the distribution of the federal BEAD funds by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in June.
Nebraska missed the first round of “location” challenges in December, but both Haxby and the Nebraska Public Service Commission submitted “availability” challenges in January.
In March, Haxby met a federal deadline to submit her 11,367 challenges to locations missed as “unserved” on the FCC map. She said that seven counties across the state had more than 5% of their farms and homes missing on the map, with Banner County off by 11%.
Another batch of federal money
Tom Rolfes, a federal program officer with the NTIA, said he was unaware of any individual like Haxby who submitted challenges to the FCC broadband map. Challenges are typically done by internet providers and state agencies, he said.
The challenges, once verified federally, would serve to enhance a state’s chances of getting more of the $42 billion in BEAD funding, Rolfes said.
For certain, Haxby said, a more accurate map will mean that more unserved locations of the state will be getting high-speed internet.
Rolfes added that another influx of federal money for broadband expansion will be awarded in June, with $87 million targeted for Nebraska’s 1st and 3rd Congressional Districts. Another $35 million has been set aside for areas of North and South Omaha.
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