In March, when people found themselves suddenly having to work from home or teach their students at home, it became apparent to some that their internet speeds weren't up to par.

Some of those people have the extra challenge of living in a rural area.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced the Nebraska Broadband Grant on June 12. The application opened June 22 and the deadline for broadband service providers to apply was Thursday.

The Village of Arlington is looking into the grant.

"We looked at that and community members are always reaching out to us to provide better services," Village Board of Trustees member Jason Wiese said. "We met with American Broadband Nebraska with board member Travis Kraemer and Village Clerk Niki Herre, and American Broadband felt they wouldn't be able to apply for the grant for us."

Wiese said American Broadband officials felt that more than 50 percent of the homes in Arlington are provided the required internet speeds standard set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of 25/3 Mbps (download/upload).

Wiese said they reached out to Charter communications/Spectrum.

"They reached out to us too and think they could expand services into Arlington," he said. "They're going to put some things together and talk about applying for the grant. There are a lot of moving pieces to qualify for the grant but we are in the initial conversation with them and it sounds like we may be on their shortlist."

Wiese said the board submitted a letter of support, which is what was needed from their side.

"There are still some details to finalize but it looks very promising. Of course as with all grants there are no guarantees," he said. "We did also include a letter of support from the school, too. When we learned about the grant they stated that communities who could work with their schools may have a better opportunity to receive the grant."

Wiese, who is a teacher with Arlington Public Schools, encountered the challenges from a school perspective firsthand.

"I've constantly heard students and family members complain about the internet speeds and I really want to take advantage of the grant when it's out there and see what we can do to provide better things for our community," he said. "We want to see what else is there and if someone is willing to work with us we are willing to work with them and do what is best for our community."  

Arlington Elementary School Principal Jacque Morgan said the school initially got feedback from 13 families without any type of wireless access.

"Selectel CEO Matt O'Flaherty wanted to help families that were struggling and provided a free mobile hotspot during the time we were out, and that's how, with them, we were able to get all the families internet access or good access because of their location in the country," she said. "I could see it being a possibility of problem and think it will be an ongoing concern."

Morgan said infrastructure and internet and remote access regardless of situation in world today is an important piece of how they do business.

"It was never more apparent as it was in the pandemic and needing to shut down," she said. "I don't think it's a bad thing to look at for sure."

Morgan said the school sent out a survey right before the closure to see who needed devices and internet. The school had high participation comparatively with other districts, Morgan said.

Johnathan Hladik, policy director at the Center for Rural Affairs, said there has been more media coverage and comments from shareholders in Nebraska about rural broadband access, but not in the form of a legislative process.

Legislative Bill 996 has advanced to final reading in the Nebraska Legislature. It was introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt and is "to ensure that the State of Nebraska is accurately represented in federal broadband grant programs, including grants from the federal Universal Service Fund, the Broadband Data Improvement Program is created. The Broadband Data Improvement Program shall be administered by the commission."

"When we talk about broadband nationally and in Nebraska the biggest problem is that the official data that is being used by federal and state governments dramatically overstate the number of households that have coverage," Hladik said.

Hladik said Form 477 asks each provider to tell the FCC which census blocks they serve.

"If one house has broadband they can count that entire census block as having it. That’s a big problem in rural areas as you think about satellite or wireless or there could be some trees in the way and your house doesn’t get it," he said. "Whenever we see official statements of broadband coverage they are overstated."

Hladik said LB 996 encourages the public service commission to develop a process to challenge the coverage data to standardize a process where house/business could use an approved speed test or some other means to show they do not have coverage when the data shows that they do.

"That would allow the state to then collect those households on that census block and present them as needing service," he said.

The broadband grant is a tough program, he said.

"There was a lot of excitement about it up front and I think a lot of that excitement has diminished – part of it is on the state and the reality of the situation," Hladik said. "The money has to be spent by the end of the year, there are limits on the number of communities that can benefit and a small window for application."

Hladik said it's about more than giving providers money.

"Getting the infrastructure, the right data is something we need to do," he said. "We need to get invested in good mapping like Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas and Colorado. We know 477 is wrong, let’s get the right data."

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