Patrick Redmond, Nebraska’s interim broadband director, described his workspace as “an office of one.” Given the Nebraska Broadband Office was just created in January, he told Fierce “there’s a big learning curve” in tackling the broadband landscape.
One order of business is to get the state’s broadband maps up and running. Redmond said Nebraska has been working with a vendor since February to develop a map prototype. Nebraska aims to create a map that will “overlay every single funding source that targets broadband here in the state.”
“So when you take a look at it, as a constituent or as a broadband provider, you can say ‘okay, so we have these locations that are unserved, these locations that are underserved and now I can overlay these funding sources to take those locations off the table,” he said.
But tracking the map’s progress is tricky, as Redmond pointed out the Nebraska Public Service Commission – not the state broadband office – is in charge of creating and maintaining the map.
“I’ve just been told that [the map is] in a working way and that we’re tweaking it, I haven’t actually seen it yet,” he said.
However, state legislation introduced in January aims to shift mapping responsibilities to Redmond’s office. He said the bill is in its final reading and “should pass probably in the next two to three weeks.”
Once passed, the bill will also allow the state broadband office to leverage funds from the $42.5 billion Broadband, Access, Equity and Deployment (BEAD) program. But Redmond noted the structure of Nebraska’s legislature has slowed down the process of getting the legislation across the finish line.
“We’ve only had five bills passed in 75 days, so you can imagine,” he said. “It’s a little bit complicated, because some broadband functionality will remain with the Public Service Commission, but others will be moved to the broadband office. It’s a whole spaghetti-ball of problems.”
It isn’t Nebraska’s only legislative roadblock for broadband. State law currently prohibits municipal entities from providing broadband. Nebraska’s legislature in January introduced a bill that would alleviate those restrictions, but no action has been taken on it thus far.
“I talked with the state legislature about that. We had negotiations going over it as well,” said Redmond. “I imagine it’ll come back in the future, but I don’t think there’s an avenue with the current session just based on what I’ve seen.”
When the BEAD money starts flowing, Redmond anticipates network maintenance will remain a key concern for Nebraska. In some high-cost areas, “the business case still isn’t there for ongoing service without some support from the government, whether that be federal or state.”
Redmond went on to say, “if I’m talking with a company’s CEO and I’m saying ‘hey, we’re looking at this area out in the Sandhills, we’d like to see to some buildout there because they’re currently unserved,’ they get back to me and say, ‘okay, we could do that…but how are we going to continue that service?’”
Providers have to ensure their networks have complete uptime, which in turn drives up maintenance costs. Raising prices for broadband customers isn’t an option, “especially through the BEAD program, where you have to have that low-cost option,” he noted.
Speaking more broadly on Nebraska’s broadband landscape, Redmond described it as a rural-urban divide, in which urban areas usually have a lower cost threshold due to the density of customers.
“We have territories that have like 0.3 residents per square mile, it’s really difficult when you’re looking at individuals that are that spread out,” he explained. “The ruralness of the state is very different from what you see on the eastern seaboard in a state like Vermont or even nearby neighbors…smaller states that have most of their population concentrated in certain areas.”
Terrain can be a hindrance for deployment as well, especially in the western parts of the state where there is more rocky terrain than in eastern Nebraska, which contains more soil.
“Particularly if you get away from dense areas, that’s when you’re looking at fixed wireless as a much more reasonable solution under the BEAD guidance, than fiber for that kind of terrain issue,” Redmond said, noting states like Arkansas and Missouri flagged similar problems with trying to deploy fiber in mountainous areas.
If there’s anything the federal government should focus on in its broadband efforts, it’s network maintenance and ongoing support for BEAD as well as programs like the Universal Service Fund, Redmond said.
“Just getting back to that maintenance component, that concern I think is something that the feds should be looking at, if there is some such way they can provide ongoing funding for a lot of these federal programs that they’ve authorized,” he stated. “For example with BEAD, if there is some way these companies can get assistance when it comes to maintenance of their systems.”