Broadband in NE -- Many Success Stories, but Still Work to Be Done

By: KOLNKGIN Email
By: KOLNKGIN Email

From compiling health-care information to giving football coaches a tool to analyze video, from providing a jobs bank for western Nebraska employers to helping brides-to-be plan that special day -- those are some of the ways Nebraskans are tapping into broadband Internet access.

But there's more work to be done to make sure such access is available across the state, even in the most rural of areas, said speakers Tuesday at the Broadband Connecting Nebraska conference in Lincoln.

It's an economic-development issue, said Jessica Zufulo, deputy administrator of the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Broadband Internet is a "central pillar of economic growth in any community," she said.

"Without access to affordable high-quality communications infrastructure, rural Americans will be relegated to second-class citizens in this information economy," she added.

Zufulo said there's a direct link between available broadband access and job growth, and noted that the Recovery Act includes funding for building this infrastructure in rural areas. The need is great; only one in 10 applications were funded.

A succession of Nebraska entrepreneurs testified to the importance of broadband access and their success tapping into it.

For example, Deb Bass of the Nebraska Health Information Initiative said her organization's success so far -- with about 1.9 million patients in its secure, web-based information system, 26 percent from outside the state -- is only the beginning of how health care will be transformed. Mobile applications are the future, she said, as health-care consumers schedule appointments, pay bills, choose providers and more via their Smart Phones.

David Graff, owner of Hudl, is also bullish on broadband. While still a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he founded the company, which has grown from 12 clients in 2008 to about 7,000. The Haymarket-based firm provides football and other coaches software to analyze video. Most of his clients are high school coaches, but he also has three NFL teams, 50 Division I college programs and two NHL teams.

Nebraska is an ideal location to base such businesses, Graff added. Office space is reasonably priced, UNL offers a well-educated hiring pool and the state has excellent programs to encourage such investment.

"That support is the kind of thing that's going to enable companies like ours to continue to develop in Nebraska," Graff said.

Megan Hunt's Princess Lasertron helps women plan their weddings. Another entrepreneur who started her business in college, Hunt worked with 300 brides last year, 46 percent of them from outside the United States. A longtime blogger and early adopter of social media, Hunt praised Nebraska's "culture of risk taking and innovation."

Speaking of risk taking, Nebraska farmers, too, are tapping into broadband. Brandon Hunnicutt, a fifth-generation farmer whose family has worked the same land for more than 100 years and whose Twitter handle is @cornfedfarmer, said adopting the latest communications technology is as important to agricultural producers' future as adopting the latest production technology.

It's all about "being able to do more things in a more efficient manner," Hunnicutt said. Ultimately, he expects to be able to upload his data from his tractor cab to web-based apps to get analysis and feedback on a host of production decisions.

Elsewhere, Gering and Scottsbluff have the Twin Cities Development Association, which is serving six communities in the region with an online job bank, said Darla Heggem of the association. And Rod Wagner of the Nebraska Library Commission said progress is coming, although not as quickly as the commission would like, on improving Internet access at public libraries, a key resource for people who cannot afford their own computers or access.

Wagner said Nebraska has the fourth-highest per capita use of computers in public libraries, a need libraries are struggling to meet. They often need to impose time limits on use, and nearly one-half of public libraries' computers are more than four years old. Those users include unemployed people filling out online job applications; families of members of the military using Skype to talk to them; and senior citizens taking classes.

"It's clear that a lot of good things are happening in Nebraska," said Rod Armstrong of the AIM Institute, presenter of the conference with partners including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Public Service Commission, Nebraska Information Technology Commission and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

The conference, first of what is expected to be an annual event, was part of a broadband mapping and planning initiative funded by a grant to the Nebraska Public Service Commission by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to increase the adoption and use of high speed Internet.


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