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Expanding High-Speed Internet Into Nebraska’s Rural Communities
By Jackie Ostrowicki
The internet is an integral part of everyday life for most Americans. We use it to communicate with friends and family, stream our favorite TV shows and shop from the comfort of our living rooms. More importantly, this technology connects health care providers with patients, teachers with students and businesses with a global marketplace.
Affordable, high-speed internet is almost a necessity in today’s world, yet many people living in the U.S. still lack access. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 19 million Americans—6% of the population—don’t have access to broadband services at minimum threshold speeds. A majority of these people—14.5 million—live in rural areas.
“We feel for people in rural areas who are suffering from this,” said University of Nebraska at Kearney professor Tim Obermier, who is researching the digital divide with his colleague Angela Hollman. “You hear anecdotally all the time that people can’t get good, quality internet.”
In a state where roughly 35% of the residents live in rural areas, it’s easy to spot the disparities.
The Pandemic Has Exposed a Greater Need for Broadband
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the importance of broadband, as people were forced to work and to do schoolwork at home. It also underscored the “digital divide” between the adequacy of service in urban and rural areas.
There are stories of families having to drive their kids to libraries in town, parking lots near schools or high hills near their ranch to access adequate internet service to do homework. Businesses won’t locate or expand in rural areas unless they have high-speed internet.
Hollman, an associate professor in UNK’s Department of Cyber Systems, can share story after story about UNK students who struggled with remote learning because they don’t have a high-speed internet connection at home. This has impacted their ability to view lectures or upload assignments, forcing some students to drive to a relative’s house to get online or find a Wi-Fi hotspot they could access with their smartphone.
UNK faculty faced the same problems. Before she found another internet provider, Hollman had trouble with Zoom calls while working from her home northwest of Gibbon, an area that also lacks cell reception. Hollman said, “Lack of broadband had a direct impact on my line of work, and it had a direct impact on students who were trying to get their education remotely.” These personal challenges created even more motivation to help Nebraska solve this problem.
Closing the Broadband Divide
Obermier has conducted multiple studies analyzing the cost and capacity of internet services in Nebraska. However, that research relied on generalized data that came from the providers themselves. To fully understand the issue, Obermier and Hollman are taking this research one step further by comparing a customer’s internet package with the actual bandwidth they’re receiving.
“Broadband doesn't just impact education and health care, it affects economic development. Farming is the number one industry in the state, and agriculture has to be connected to broadband.”
This data will more accurately depict the deficit experienced by rural residents, agricultural producers, businesses, schools and communities as a whole—while assisting regulatory agencies and internet providers working to close the digital divide.
Along with residences, businesses and schools, precision agriculture is another area of interest for the researchers. Many ag operations have massive data needs—whether they’re adjusting an irrigation pivot on a smartphone, mapping crop yields from the cab of a combine or using high-tech ear tags to monitor the health of their livestock.
“If you look down the road at what these farmers are going to need 10 years from now, we’re not even close to that,” said Obermier.
Focusing on Broadband Access
Rural broadband access is important enough that Nebraska’s governor, Pete Ricketts, will likely focus on expanding it with some of the $5 billion in federal stimulus money the state receives. At a time when more people are working remotely from home, Ricketts put $29 million of CARES Act money into helping Nebraskans get better connected to the internet. He has since proposed $40 million for further broadband expansion in this year’s budget.
“The federal government recently stated that they're going to spend $80 billion on infrastructure. Our research shows where the gaps are at, which allows the policymakers to make better decisions on where funding is directed.”
The ultimate goal of Hollman and Obermier’s project is to “visualize” the digital divide, giving regulatory agencies and internet providers a clearer picture of where broadband infrastructure needs to improve. It’s a topic receiving both state and national attention.
Obermier and Hollman have presented their project to FCC subcommittees, the Nebraska Information Technology Commission and Nebraska Telecommunications Association, economic development districts and Nebraska state senators.
There’s also interest from internet providers that could use the UNK research to satisfy reporting requirements tied to federal funding awarded to companies to expand broadband services. “They’re receiving thousands of dollars to roll out networks—and now the government is asking them to verify that their networks work,” Obermier explained.
Hollman believes their project can be a model for broadband mapping across the country. “The internet isn’t going away,” she said. “We’re only going to need more of it.”
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