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State Fair Hosts FCC Commissioner, Talks on Broadband Access

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State Fair Hosts FCC Commissioner, Talks on Broadband Access, Sara Kirkley reports

Washington D.C. came to the Nebraska State Fair on Tuesday.

Above the bustle of the grounds Senator Deb Fischer gathered a roundtable of telecommunication and agriculture leaders and a Federal Communications Commission commissioner.

Sarah Werner, of the Nebraska Cattlemen, was on the panel. She said she lives in a part of the state where people carry two cell phones to get service and an inch of rain can take out internet access.

Senator Fischer - who owns a ranch near Valentine - can relate.

"It's tough when you can't download something and it's a fact of life, but it shouldn't have to be set in stone," she said.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said his office is working to make changes.

"I'll take those learning experiences back to my job in D.C. and most chances than not, one or two of those pieces I’ll wind up changing in a reform item that I’ll push going forward," he said.

O’Rielly said he’d never been involved in a roundtable discussion like the one held during his first trip to Nebraska, but he said he does travel the country to collect information.

Ag leaders told O’Rielly about the impact to the environment and a farmer’s bottom line when there’s no broadband to connect their high tech tools.

Great Plains Communications Vice President Ken Pfister estimates his company has 10,000 customers who don't have viable landline internet service.

"It's very costly. The cost for our company building fiber, we've done a study some years ago to every Great Plains customer is about a quarter of a billion dollars," he said.

Pfister said that's about $15,000 a mile, but it may be easier to do with subsidies from the FCC.

"Over the long arc of time we're hoping to nibble away at that and that's the reforms that have been discussed today, I think are hopefully moving us in that direction," said Pfister.

That's just to provide basic service for everyone.

"We realize the speeds aren't going to be everything the consumers want, but I really care about those consumers that have nothing to just dial up today. How do we get service to the toughest reaches of Nebraska?" said O’Rielly.

According to the Nebraska Public Service Commission, access is getting better.

Officials there say more than $51 million has funded 138 projects to improve broadband access to more than 54,000 Nebraskans since 2008.

The money comes from both the federal and state Universal Service Fund, which you’ll see a charge for on your phone bill.

But, internet and cell phone providers say more funding and guidance from the FCC on what areas to serve is needed.

Meanwhile, technology keeps advancing.

“Broadband is changing before our very eyes. Not only what is it defined as, what are the speeds, what are the needs so we're trying to figure out how can we best invest scarce federal dollars into carriers that will deploy and advance their network to meet the needs going forward for the next 10 years," said O’Rielly.

“If we're going to move ahead as a state and our rural community and agriculture - our main business in the state - we need to be connected,” said Senator Fischer. "We're looking at ways to make it affordable, make it feasible and make it a service we should be demanding. Everyone should have the right to that access of broadband."

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