Like oxygen, the internet is both vital and easy to take for granted. Big city Nevadans — that’s us — are sitting pretty with easy access. In fact, Las Vegas will be one of the first cities in the nation to receive AT&T’s 5G mobile service early next year.
Yet for rural Nevadans, connections are harder to come by. “Pretty much any urban area is set,” says Jojo Myers Campos, the state broadband development manager for the Governor’s Office of Science Innovation and Technology. “But most of our state is rural.” Campos says 13 or 14 Nevada counties still need help solidifying their internet connectivity.
According to a fact sheet provided by the governor’s office, 220,000 Nevadans lack access to a wired connection capable of 25 mbps download speeds, and 100,000 Nevadans live in places where there is no wired internet. Ninety-seven percent of Nevadans do have fixed wireless access, and Nevada ranked 18 out of 50 states for internet availability, adoption, investment and regulation (by Broadband Economists, Strategic Networks Group). But for those unlucky few who lack internet, the world is similar to a closed oyster.
It might be fun to make disparaging jokes about millennials and their incessant need to share cat videos. But to belabor the obvious, the internet is more than just memes. It’s needed for emergency services, business, commerce, transportation, public safety, health care and education. Telemedicine and distance learning are especially vital to residents of remote areas.
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Campos works to bring internet to regions that need it most. Her office coordinates the state’s broadband strategies through federal, state and local agencies.
Campos has been working to help secure internet for Austin, a town in central Nevada at the northern tip of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “I pull into Austin and can’t even get a Wi-Fi signal,” Campos says. “It’s terrible when you think about the kids; they deserve the same educational opportunities as kids in Reno or Carson City. Those kids don’t have that opportunity. That’s what we’re working on.”
Campos usually starts by seeking a short-term internet solution, such as wireless. Once the gap is bridged, she works on a long-term solution, such as procuring fiber optic cables. Campos speaks passionately about her mission of connecting Nevadans to the world writ large. She acknowledges that the logistics of wireless connectivity can make the eyes glaze over, so she tries to keep the explanations simple while focusing on the huge community impact of her work.
Amid our highly polarized political climate, bringing broadband to rural Nevada is one goal that both sides support.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., along with Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo, recently introduced the Access Broadband Act, which seeks to streamline access to federal broadband resources.
“Sen. Cortez Masto recognizes the rural/urban digital divide in Nevada,” Campos said in an email. “I feel we are so lucky to have Sen. Cortez Masto to . make our state a better place for education, health care, public safety and economic development.”
On the other side of the aisle, outgoing Sen. Dean Heller said in a press statement that one of his top priorities is “working to make sure that small businesses and students in all corners of Nevada have the tools — such as access to high-speed internet — to be successful.” He released that statement to celebrate the fact that Lincoln County will receive $6,944,000 from the USDA Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan Program to improve broadband services.
Campos says the money will be used specifically to “maintain existing infrastructure, upgrade equipment and expand fixed-wireless broadband systems, making it easier to access high-speed internet.”
In June, Heller also helped introduce a bill to streamline the application process to construct broadband infrastructure on federal lands. The bill would create a 270-day deadline for the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service to respond to applications. No response would equate to an approval.
The short answer to the question of who gets federal broadband funding is: Those who ask for it. The squeaky wheel gets faster internet, to paraphrase an old adage.
But when it comes to government bureaucracy, the asking isn’t so simple or straightforward. Each federal program has different processes, which can be lengthy and take up to a year. This is why the state office is so vital in helping different groups get internet.
Tribal lands are often both remote and underserved, so the state office works to help various groups. Right now, the office is working with Lovelock Indian Colony, Ely Shoshone Tribe, Reno Sparks Indian Colony and Owyhee Shoshone/Paiute Tribe. “We are working individually with these tribes to get fiber assets when and where possible, or at least a very good wireless solution,” Campos says. “We help them find solutions so their tribe and tribal entities have the same opportunities as any other entity in the state.”
Some of the programs that the Nevada state office helps applicants navigate are the Universal Services Administrative Services program (called the E-rate for schools and libraries) and the federal program from Universal Services Administrative Services (called the Rural Health Care program). Campos says the state office also helps identify funding sources, such as the USDA and the Department of Commerce. The Nevada office has successfully launched a program called the Whole Community Connectivity Approach in White Pine, Elko, Pershing and Humboldt counties.
“Some of these programs can have cumbersome application processes, reviewing processes, evaluation processes,” Campos says. “The key word here is ‘processes,’ and that can scare off potential applicants. Some people and/or entities do not have technical writing skills or network design skills, so that leaves them having to hire an outside consultant, and that can be lots of money that these tribes or rural areas do not have, so any kind of streamlining is welcomed.”