Policy

Study: Neb. Should Allow Muni Services

5/24/2006 9:00 AM Eastern

Nebraska should rescind or modify a law that bars municipal utilities from offering broadband services, according to a report written by the school of law at New York University to a legislative committee studying the impact of the law.

Commercial operators have failed to reach 7.4% of Nebraska towns, or 43% of rural Nebraska, with high-speed-data connections such as cable modems or digital-subscriber-line service, according to the report. It suggested that cities, using Wi-Max or broadband-over-power-line (BPL) technology, could reach those homes if the state restrictions were lifted.

The report -- backed by groups such as the Center for Rural Affairs, Nebraska Common Cause, the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Rural Policy Research Institute, Free Press and Media Access Project -- has been issued to influence a legislative committee formed when the law was passed in 2005.

Cable and telephone companies successfully argued that municipal utilities would have a financial edge as broadband suppliers, as they have tax advantages and public financing not available to the private sector. Commercial providers also argued that data services are available throughout the state, either via landline or direct-to-home satellite delivery.

The legislature was tweaked by critics for passing the ban on municipal broadband first, then planning a study of actual broadband deployment and price points. The committee is scheduled to issue a report for the legislature by the end of this year.

The broadband recommendation report was written by attorneys with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law. It concluded that satellite-delivered Internet access is available via products such as WildBlue Inc. and Hughes Network Systems’ DirecWay, but it added that the price points for these services are too high to make them a viable broadband option for most rural families. Those services cost $1,000 in installation and service fees the first year and $600 for subsequent years, according to the report.

Also, land-based providers have failed to extend service at all to towns including Albion, Sidney, Valparaiso, North Loup, Table Rock and Martell, the report said.

Lack of fast access impacts the success of farmers, for instance, who can’t access the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Farm Service Agency Web sites.

The report concluded that municipal Wi-Max -- a wireless technology that can enable connections within 30 miles of its microwave transmitters -- or municipal BPL could fill in the state’s gaps in high-speed-data delivery.

The authors suggested that a level playing field between public and private providers could be maintained by requiring public utility providers to offer broadband services at or just above costs.

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