Internet connectivity problems that have plagued rural towns and villages across Nebraska could soon be a thing of the past.
Nebraska’s Remote Access Rural Broadband Grant, funded by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, is intended to provide residents of underserved rural Nebraskan communities the internet access they need to participate in a growing digital landscape.
Villages like Brule have needed increased broadband connectivity for years. Al Bahnsen, mayor of the 387-person village, said rural Americans are used to poor internet, but the pandemic underscored the need for better connectivity.
“The internet is usable. But I know from our family that when COVID hit and our daughters were living at the house, the old plan was only 5 megabits per second, and you can’t do squat,” Bahnsen said.
Working and schooling also became more difficult. Bahnsen said that with such low speeds, businesses in Brule couldn’t function and children couldn’t go to class online or complete homework.
Villages like Brule are now benefiting from the $30 million in funding that the grant has given internet providers to work in rural areas across the state. The Department of Economic Development has set a lofty goal for broadband providers who received grant money: provide high-speed internet access to every member of the community they’ve been assigned by the end of this year.
It’s a lot of work, but Mark Liljehorn, director of sales and marketing at USA Communications, said it will be worth it to provide communities the services they need.
“Our goal is to make sure that if you have three kids at home trying to do online schooling, and mom and dad are both working from home, and everybody’s all on the computer at the same time, they’re going to have more than enough bandwidth to be able to fully function,” Liljehorn said.
Providers like USA Communications plan to build infrastructure for broadband speeds high enough for many people in a single household to watch Netflix, play online games, go on Zoom or post on social media. Residents of these rural towns currently live with extremely limited internet access. But their internet will soon be up to 300 times faster.
Amanda Sindelar, economic director for Atkinson, a town of just over 1,000 residents in northern Nebraska, said she hopes improved connectivity will help current and new residents of Atkinson.
“I hope that it’ll bring not only more accessibility to our current residents, but I hope that it will also bring new families to our area,” Sindelar said.
Sindelar isn’t alone in her positive outlook for the future of rural Nebraska. Bahnsen said he’s excited to welcome newcomers to Brule knowing they won’t be limited by a lack of internet access.
“There’s a lot of people this day and age doing work from home, even before COVID. Now we can have new people move in and say to them, ‘You can work remotely, you can pick your option.’ We never had that option before,” he said.
Liljehorn said he’s happy to be a part of providing underserved communities the resources they need to succeed.
“Being able to continue education, being able to continue work and not have to worry about, ‘How am I going to get this done?’ Not having to add that stress of not having internet is what I want to achieve,” Liljehorn said. “A kid, an employee, anybody should be able to do their work and participate in events without having to stress about it.”