Life in the 'Slow Lane': Rural Nebraskans Ask for Better Broadband

Dec. 29, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

Arnold Exchange sits on the east edge of town best of 2021
The Arnold Exchange, one of the town's convenience stores, sits on the east edge of the central Nebraska town. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Cheryl Carson is expert on all things Arnold, Nebraska.

With a job in small town economic development, she’s tasked with knowing most things about her town that sits on the western edge of Custer County in the central part of the state.

In the town of about 800, Carson knows there is only one reliable internet provider – but even then, it’s sometimes not good enough.

“Internet plays a key part here just as it does anywhere else,” she said. “I mean, I don’t think we would know what to do without our computers, honestly. I wouldn’t. If I don’t have a computer, and I can’t connect to the internet, my job stops for the day and I find other things that I can work on.”

Access to reliable internet may not be a big problem in Lincoln or Omaha – or even other cities across the state.

In rural parts of the state, finding reliable internet can be a problem.

The residents of these rural towns say broadband is not just a nice thing to have but, rather, a necessity in today’s way of life – even in the most remote parts of the state. It’s places and towns like these in rural Nebraska that could stand to gain the most from reliable internet and programs that make that happen.

For Carson, the issue of broadband access is not just one of comfort but of trying to maintain and grow her small town.

“Those kinds of jobs that you could get working from home, while the kids are at school,” she said, “that could be a really important thing for some families to be able to do stuff like just as if you were in a larger community.”

Carson is not the only one who's interested in expanding high speed internet access.

“One of the key things for us with regard to broadband is that it really facilitates many of the things that we take for granted in more of our urban areas,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said earlier this month on a tele-town hall with AARP Nebraska. “Certainly, this pandemic has highlighted the issues when you're on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

AARP polling found 79% of Nebraska voters ages 50 and older believe elected officials should work to make high speed internet available statewide.

That divide Ricketts mentioned is obvious in data collected by Nebraska’s local economic development districts. The Southeast Nebraska Development District and its executive director, Tom Bliss, led the effort to collect and map speeds all across the state.

What the districts got was a Nebraska map and a bunch of colored dots, and those dots can help people like Bliss start to answer some questions about where and how internet access can improve.

“Is it fiber to the home? Is it a wireless signal? Is it a hybrid or combination of the two?” he asked. “This software will actually allow you to do that based on the collected data points, which is really cool.”

Each dot has a corresponding color to represent a different download speed at someone’s home or business. There are two colors to represent what the federal government has deemed substandard or download speeds below 25 megabytes per second. There are also two colors above standard speeds.

The difference in color is very clear. Big cities and even smaller towns have lots of blue. Out in the country, there's a lot more red.

This mapping project was designed to show the federal government speeds were low enough in his district’s area in order to get some money from them, Bliss said. Currently, the economic development districts are awaiting enough tests before they start grant applications. Custer County, home to Broken Bow, is the only county in Nebraska that has collected enough tests to show the federal government.

This map paints a picture that many in the state already knew.

The unicameral took action this past year and funded the Nebraska Rural Broadband Bridge Act. The $20 million put forth will fund a match program for internet providers that requires they must deliver broadband at 100 megabytes per second for both upload and download speeds. If the providers don’t meet the speeds, they don’t get the match money from the state.

The program opens on September 9 and will close on October 1, and the grant will be prioritized toward under-served areas with poor broadband access.

“The impact that these projects are going to have on a community can be tremendous,” said Judy Petersen, who also works in economic development as the executive director of the Central Nebraska Economic Development District based in Atkinson.

Petersen, along with Carson and Bliss, specifically mentioned the pandemic amplified the broadband inequalities because of the reliance on remote work and school. Peterson said she heard stories about high schoolers working out of school parking lots during the first months of the pandemic.

Those issues happened at a far greater rate in rural places and illustrate the need for making improvements to broadband in order to keep up with urban areas.

“They're very used to, in their urban areas, having access to all this high speed. And when they come to a smaller community, that could be something that they may decide to go looking elsewhere for a job because of that, and we don't want it to be a barrier,” Petersen said.

Another program, American Connection Corps, also will try to help solve some of the connectivity issues. Scoular, an Omaha-based company, is among a handful nationwide that helped fund the program, which will send four paid fellowships across the state to work on rural broadband, among other things. Two of the fellows will serve at the Southeast Nebraska Development District.

Back in Arnold, Shelley Smith and her farm serve as an example of a place that’s seen the added benefits of solid internet.

Last fall, a provider put in what’s called an access point on top of Smith’s grain elevator. Basically, it gives the farm reliable internet in and around home base. For the Smiths, new agriculture technology – and internet that runs it – can help them avoid over-watering soybeans and corn. They can also see updates in real time when harvesting and planting, and the internet makes their precision ag and their way of life more efficient.

“I would just really love to see all the small towns across Nebraska – in the rural areas, especially – have the opportunity to have the internet and have Wi-Fi inside and outside,” Smith said. “That's the way it's going. Our whole world is evolving to that. It would be nice if everybody could appreciate it and enjoy that and have the ability to work with that technology.”

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2021" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published on Aug. 26, 2021.