Once again, State Sen. Lydia Brasch couldn't access her Internet service.
A storm had blown through the Bancroft, Neb., area one night last week, knocking out power to the satellite dish that provides wireless Internet access to area farmers. High winds prevented anyone from climbing the tower to fix the problem.
Brasch was able to use her cellphone and a slow-printing fax machine as she tried to handle legislative work. While dicey Internet service is something she has gotten used to on her northeast Nebraska farm, it's a problem she wants to fix.
“Internet access is just as important in rural areas as it is everywhere else,” Brasch said.
But new federal regulations will reduce federal subsidies for broadband Internet services — such as cable, fiber optic or DSL — in many areas outside towns and cities, leaving rural residents with less-reliable options, said Eric Carstenson, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association.
A Nebraska legislative committee is studying the issue and will hold three public hearings throughout the state, beginning today in Scottsbluff. The other hearings are Monday in Aurora and Tuesday in Lincoln.
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, who heads the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, sought the study to examine the federal Universal Service Fund, the progress of the state's own pilot program — an initiative created in 2009 to increase utilization of broadband, particularly in underserved areas — and other possible funding mechanisms for statewide broadband access.
The hearings will include testimony on Nebraskans' ability to access Internet and telecommunication services, either individually or for businesses, schools or health care.
“I really think it's important for the people to know about this subject,” Dubas said. “Great opportunity for us to evaluate the program.”
Federal officials will be among those testifying about changes in regulations and subsidies, Dubas said.
“I don't know what to expect, but I do know something is going to change,” she said.
Quality broadband access isn't cheap, Carstenson said. On average, it costs $15,000 per mile to stretch fiber-optic wiring into rural areas, he said, and sometimes that serves just one or two people.
“When those companies are receiving just $19.95 a month for all that work, it takes a long time to make up that kind of money,” Carstenson said.
Federal subsidies have tried to help provide broadband coverage to rural Nebraskans, Carstenson said, but it's not clear there will be as much assistance in the future.
Brasch said it's important to ensure rural areas have reliable service. She's been living on a farm for almost 20 years and knows how farmers today rely on the Internet.
“I believe we can do business anywhere virtually,” Brasch said. “But we have to be ready with that technology.”
Even when the Internet was just taking off, Brasch and farmers near her home chipped in $5,000 each to put up their own satellite towers because they were 10 miles from the nearest broadband connection.
Brasch also mentions the importance of Internet access for health care and schools.
The Affordable Care Act created online marketplaces where citizens can compare and buy insurance and federal tax credits to help with the cost. Students of all ages need the Internet to work on homework assignments or take online classes. Why shouldn't kids in rural areas have access to the same opportunities, Brasch asked, as those living in cities or towns?
“It's a great life to live in a rural area, but you have to make a living,” she said. “The key is affordability and reliability. It's decent now, but it could be so much better.”