Legislative committee told Universal Service Fund needs restructuring

A legislative committee was told Thursday that the state's Universal Service Fund fund is not being used effectively to provide better access to rural Nebraskans and should be restructured.

Matt Larsen, owner of local broadband company Vistabeam, told the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee fixed wireless companies like his are not eligible to use the public funds and it has become a "giveaway" to large mobile wireless firms and telephone companies.

Larsen maintains a project several years ago where a half million dollar grant was provided to a regional telephone company to help provide fiber service to 70 remote residents in Sioux County is an example of inefficient use of public money. Larsen says it cost almost $15,000 a person to provide coverage to the area when it would have cost his company less than $600 per user to do it.

Larsen says the fund should also not be funding technologically obsolete DSL service.

Larsen says the fund should be restructured, suggesting the formation of an infrastructure bank where providers could borrow money for projects with the repayments used to establish a self sustainng fund. Larsen said if that was done, the fee placed on phone bills to support the fund would no longer be needed.

The committee was told by Boni Carrell, Executive Director of the Rural Healthcare Network, that without USF money the state would not have a network that has allowed providers to have 12,000 private consultations with patients, two thirds of those concerning mental health.

The committee will use the input in Scottsbluff and other sites around the state then report their findings to the legislature along with any recommended legislation.

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