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11/1/2013 12:59:30 PM

Internet Service an Economic Tool for Rural Areas

Editorial, The Grand Island Independent

Nov. 1, 2013 -- Speaker after speaker at three legislative hearings during the last week have spoken about how important having reliable, high-speed broadband Internet service is for rural Nebraska. Many said they wouldnít be able to live where they do without the service.

All of the testimony made it abundantly clear that rural areas need good Internet service if they are to attract new residents and offer economic opportunities to current residents.

The Legislatureís Transportation and Telecommunications Committee held interim hearings in Grand Island, Lincoln and Scottsbluff to discuss the need for high-speed Internet connections for all Nebraskans and the impact of a decrease in federal funds to help pay for providing that service.

The federal governmentís high-cost universal service fund provided $86 million to Nebraska in 2012, but less than $80 million this year. Future federal funding is uncertain and likely to decrease, several speakers said.

State government will need to step in and make up for the lost federal funds, a telecommunications consultant told the committee. If it doesnít, rural economies could suffer as the cost of providing Internet service to rural areas is too costly to provide without the subsidies.

Funds in Nebraskaís universal service fund comes from a state fee tacked onto consumersí telephone bills.

The hearings pointed out again that the world has changed. With the right Internet connection, someone in remote areas of the state can communicate with anyone almost anywhere in the world. And itís not just communicate, but also do business with them.

These broadband connections are essential for rural areas. These services are needed to help stem the tide of people moving away to more populated areas.

While the importance of broadband Internet is undeniable, the harder questions are how much should the state contribute and where would the funds come from. Should the state fee on phone bills be increased? Is there another way to provide the funds? Thereís no doubt the service provides economic development for rural areas, which is a goal of the state.

At the Lincoln hearing, Cheryl Parrino, a consultant who testified for the trade group Nebraska Rural Independent Companies, said consumers in rural areas would likely see lower quality or higher cost service or possibly no service at all.

Nebraska canít let that happen. The state must delve into how broadband Internet service can be provided to rural Nebraska ó and kept there.


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