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For Immediate Release

May 22, 2006

Coalition Urges Nebraska to End Ban on Public Broadband Internet Services; White Paper Finds High Costs of Rural Broadband

Contact Information:
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, Brennan Center: 212-998-6025
Kafayat Alli-Balogun, Brennan Center: 212-998-6735
Jack Gould, Nebraska Common Cause: 402-784-6461

Nebraska's ban on municipal broadband exacerbates Nebraska's digital divide, says a coalition of public interest lawyers, media scholars and rural policy experts. Today, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, along with the Center for Rural Affairs, Common Cause, Free Press, Media Access Project, the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Rural Policy Research Institute submitted a White Paper urging Nebraska's Broadband Services Task Force to recommend lifting the state's ban on public entities' ability to provide retail broadband Internet access to their citizens.

The Task Force was established last year by a state law (LB 645) that bars all cities, towns, public utilities, and other public entities in Nebraska from providing retail telecommunications services of any kind, including broadband Internet access. The Task Force will report its findings to the Nebraska Governor and Legislature later this year.

The White Paper authored by the Brennan Center argues that keeping public providers out of the broadband market hurts Nebraska consumers and recommends that the law be rescinded. The White Paper argues that communities without broadband service are unable to access information they need for work, school, or leisure. According to data from the Nebraska Telecommunications Association (NTA), as of April 2006, 7.4% of Nebraskan towns (44 towns) have no broadband provider, 44.8% of Nebraskan towns (267 towns) have a monopoly broadband provider; 16.4% of Nebraskan towns (98 towns) have duopoly broadband providers; and 31.4% of Nebraskan towns (187 towns) have three or more broadband providers.

The coalition argues that Nebraska is behind in providing high-speed broadband service to consumers due to the high cost of building wired networks in rural areas and the high cost of broadband service to end-users. Exacerbating the problem is the current law that prevents public entities from offering service where the private sector refuses to invest.

"Nebraska's new law banning public broadband hits small rural communities with a double whammy," said Brennan Center Associate Counsel Ciara Torres-Spelliscy. "Their town governments can't build low-cost WiFi broadband networks, and their local power companies can't use their existing fiber or any other technology to provide them with service."

Jack Gould of Nebraska Common Cause commented, "By banning municipal broadband we are allowing the big phone companies to keep charging exorbitant rates for rural broadband. Municipal broadband would bring needed competition to the market for high speed internet service and force phone companies in Nebraska to lower prices."

Instead of banning public broadband, the coalition believes that Nebraska consumers can benefit from new technology if the law is rescinded. "If Nebraska rescinds this law, then localities can deploy WiFi to bring high speed internet access to every underserved community in Nebraska in a cost-effective manner," stated the Brennan Center's Torres-Spelliscy. Torres-Spelliscy noted that WiFi is far less expensive to deploy then wired fiber optic networks and that hundreds of municipalities around the country have either built or are in the process of building WiFi networks for their towns.

The current law also prevents Nebraska consumers from using broadband over power lines (BPL). The White Paper argues that BPL holds great potential for providing service to those who do not have it by sending broadband signals over the existing electrical grid. The European Union is actively investing in BLP, with deployments in at least 11 countries. Domestically, Manassas, VA and Cincinnati, OH have deployed BPL systems.

"Because Nebraska has 100% public power and a public provider ban on telecommunications services, Nebraskans will not be able to benefit from BPL under the current law," stated Torres-Spelliscy.

"Equal access to information is a basic building block of democracy. In this day and age, limits on access to broadband service place obstacles in the way of low-income rural Nebraskans seeking full and effective participation in our democracy. We need to take another path." stated Milo Mumgaard, Executive Director of Nebraska Appleseed.

Nebraska isn't the only state grappling with this issue. Fourteen others have created high hurdles or absolute bans on public Internet access. Six states, including Virginia, Texas and Iowa, however, have fended off restrictive legislation.

Public broadband is also being debated in Congress. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have introduced the Community Broadband Act of 2005 (S. 1294). This bill would protect the ability of local governments to provide broadband services. Other bills in the House and the Senate would do just the opposite: banning public providers nationwide.

By recommending that public providers be allowed into the market, the Task Force can help to ensure that every state resident has the ability to use the Internet through functional broadband connections at reasonable prices.

To read the White Paper online, click here.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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