The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly magnified the challenges of the digital divide in rural Nebraska. Students learning from home cannot succeed without access to rural broadband. Parents cannot work from home without access to at least minimum broadband speeds.
This is not a new problem. Rural businesses lacking broadband have struggled with e-commerce for years. The agribusiness industry, Nebraska’s largest economic driver, has dealt first hand with the heavy cost of ag operations when broadband and cell coverage is inadequate or absent. And now, more than ever, we need access for rural health care and telemedicine.
In the 1990’s when I was running two companies and raising my children, I desperately needed knowledge in e-commerce to advance my businesses so decided to earn my MBA with an emphasis in e-commerce. I had to make special arrangements to ensure that I had access to high-speed broadband/DSL service to complete my advanced degree online. Fortunately, I was able to complete that education, but that’s not the case for everyone in rural Nebraska. It’s time to fix the problem.
Studies show that Nebraska ranks 48th out of 50 in terms of broadband access. More than 25% of Nebraskan’s don’t have access to “high speed” broadband. For the counties in Southeast Nebraska, we have a disparity of access to broadband. Richardson (92.5%), Otoe (81.6%); Nemaha (75.1%); Pawnee (56.7%), Johnson (50.1%). While visiting with law enforcement officers in Southeast Nebraska, I learned of their frustration with cell coverage creating serious safety concerns. The digital divide is real. Our neighboring states are way ahead of us with 80% of Missourians having access to broadband; 88.3% for Kansas and 89.7% for Iowa.
Although legislation recently passed in Nebraska is a step in the right direction, we need to do more to invest in infrastructure and technology for rural Nebraska. I commend the work of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund as well as work being done by the University of Nebraska. As your State Senator, I will work to build coalitions with neighboring states and our federal delegation to ensure that Nebraska is not only caught up, but even surging ahead when it comes to broadband access in rural Nebraska.
We have to ensure the reliability of service at an affordable price. Currently the U.S. is working toward a speed goal of 25/3 Mbps, but Canada has already moved to a standard of 50/10 Mbps. We must continue the work of mapping, building capacity, keeping up with technology, and partnering with allies to ensure that rural Nebraska does not fall further behind.
There is not a one size fits all. The technology issues involve broadband, cellular, cable, DSL, wireless (point-to-point), Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks, KA vs KU band for satellite broadband, fiber-optic and also the key issue of redundancy for when systems fail. This is an issue that impacts everyone – agribusiness, rural healthcare, education (K-college), banks, small businesses, and media – just to name a few. I look forward to working on the cutting edge of this issue in the Nebraska Legislature.
To dialogue with me about this important issue or to learn more, visit my website at: PalmtagForNebraska.com.