Public-private broadband funding denied | Local

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The Nebraska Civil Service Commission denied funding for an innovative public-private partnership to expand broadband infrastructure. The implications of the move for other entities considering similar partnerships – such as Platte and Loup County – remain unclear.

The commission’s decision on a one-time Nebraska Broadband Bridge Program funding request will be a topic of conversation at an upcoming private meeting, said Neal Suess, district president and CEO of Loup Power. The meeting will include local entities that have signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at developing broadband infrastructure.

The push was initiated by Loup with support from the Nebraska Public Power District. Platte County was the first county to join us in November. Since then, Colfax, Nance and Boone counties have also signed.

“We are in discussions with other public entities, but no one else has signed it,” Suess told the Telegram on January 7. . “

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The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) proposes to study the development of a relationship between public entities on the MOU with a private telecommunications company to extend broadband in the region.

The innovative local effort is similar to a proposed Glenwood Telecommunications Company (GTC) and South Central Public Power District (SCPPD) project in Clay, Nuckolls and Webster counties. The GTC / SCPPD effort, if successful, would be the first of its kind in Nebraska. It’s more advanced, but funding from the Nebraska Civil Service Commission was recently denied, at least for now.

“We’re planning to have a meeting … to talk a little bit about our next steps … (and try) to figure out what this (the commission’s decision) means and where it’s going,” Suess said.

The Nebraska Broadband Bridge Act created a $ 40 million fund to be allocated for broadband infrastructure projects in Nebraska by the Public Service Commission. The $ 40 million will be distributed in two grant cycles, one in 2021 and the other in 2022. There was $ 20 million up for grabs in the 2021 cycle.

As part of the grant award process, the commission allowed Internet service providers to challenge grant applications which, if accepted, rendered the application ineligible for funding.

The results of the challenges and the recipients for the 2021 cycle were announced on January 4, but not all of the $ 20 million have been awarded. The commission left approximately $ 2.02 million in suspense.

“… The Commission will allow applicants whose applications have been refused due to a partial challenge to resubmit their application, with modifications, to successfully remove the disputed part (s),” the Commission said. January 4th order the allocation of scholarships and the results of the challenges.

The applications of the GTC / SCPPD project are the only two eligible for a new application.

The commission confirmed the challenge to Windstream’s GTC / SCPPD application, which serves some – but not all – areas of the proposed project.

The parts of the Windstream service territory that intersected the GTC / SCPPD project area would have to be cut into a GTC / SCPPD re-application, which would significantly reduce the scope of the project.

New applications are expected on January 28.

“The Board will review resubmitted applications when and if they are submitted, and would then issue an order decision at one of the Board’s regular meetings after that Jan. 28 deadline to resubmit,” Nebraska Public Service Commission Media and Communications Manager Deb Collins said in a Jan. 5 email to the Telegram.

“The remaining $ 2 million would be part of the 2021 grant cycle funds, if anyone requests it. Otherwise, it will roll over to the 2022 cycle and be available there with the $ 20 million allocated for 2022.” Collins said in a subsequent Jan.5 email to the Telegram.

At the moment, it is not known what GTC / SCPPD will do.

Formerly CEO and Chairman of the NPPD, now Special Assistant to the CEO and Current Chairman, Pat Pope has been involved in efforts to develop public / private broadband partnerships in Nebraska, including the one involving Loup, as well as the GTC / SCPPD project. .

“(The commission) isn’t the only game in town. There are literally billions of more dollars coming in from the federal government, but … if the legislature elects the canal, those dollars coming in from the federal government through the “Through the civil service commission, we have to have the right process. It has to be fair, there has to be accountability,” Pope said.

In a dissenting opinion on pricing, Commissioner Crystal Rhodes said the process was not fair.

“Simply put, the Commission did not follow our own process,” Rhodes said in his opinion. “… We did not take into account the speed data submitted by applicants and the information provided by customers and elected officials who live in the area. … Instead, the Commission accepted the facility maps provided by the carriers and their certification that they were providing an adequate service. , despite strong evidence provided by others to the contrary. “

Pope said speed tests were carried out at residences served by Windstream in the project area to see if existing Windstream customers had adequate service, defined by the commission as a download speed of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) and a download speed of 20 Mbps.

“From our actual measurement perspective, (these residences) are not being served at 100/20 Mbps, despite Windstream’s claims,” Pope said.

Molly Hunter is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Contact her by email at [email protected]

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