LINCOLN — When the coronavirus struck, Sidney-based Wheat Belt Public Power District implemented its plan to cope with a pandemic.
But the strategy, devised years ago, soon developed a hitch.
Internet speeds were too slow for two-thirds of the power district’s 29 employees who were sent to work from farms and ranch homes outside of town.
The solution wasn’t pretty. For a while, the general manager of Wheat Belt — who had to quarantine after coming into contact with someone infected — had to work from the utility’s parking lot, in his vehicle, to get adequate broadband. Several workers were moved back to offices not designed for social distancing, risking their health.
“It was a workaround, but it worked,” said Tim Lindahl, the general manager of Wheat Belt.
The pandemic has shone a bright light on the lack of adequate high-speed internet in rural areas as office workers have been forced to work from farms, ranches and acreages, and students have been required to study remotely. In addition, studies show that rural residents who lacked broadband were more likely to lose their jobs.
Conversely, COVID-19 has also created an economic opportunity, as more people have discovered that they can work from anywhere in the U.S. — even rural Nebraska — if they have adequate internet speeds and bandwidth.