Iowa's campaign for governor should elevate broadband access issues

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You could probably download all I know about broadband pretty quickly. Even with a dial-up connection.

But it’s looking like it might become a real issue in the campaign for governor, so I figured I’d better get up to speed.

“Access to broadband is no longer a fringe benefit, it is a key piece of infrastructure,” said state Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, as he announced his candidacy for governor a couple of weeks back.

“Average revenue for businesses that have broadband is nearly quadruple that of businesses without, but despite this more than 20,000 businesses in Iowa do not have broadband access. It’s not just a pipe, it’s the key to more economic activity. In 2013 no Iowa community should be eliminated from a site selection process because it doesn’t have a broadband connection,’ Olson said.

Actually, according to Connect Iowa, a partnership with the Iowa Economic Development Authority that tracks access to Internet broadband coverage in the state, 23,000 businesses are “without broadband” or about 29 percent.

But in the future, Olson should drop the word “access,” because it turns out that nearly all of those businesses have access to some level of broadband. Only 3 percent of those businesses surveyed by Connect Iowa cited no availability. According to the latest figures, released since Olson spoke, revenue for businesses with broadband is triple that of those without it.

And if you poke around Connect Iowa’s website, you’ll find maps showing more than 90 percent of the state is covered by broadband service at download speeds up to 6 Mbps, or megabits per second. That’s a big improvement from a few years ago.

So mission accomplished, right? Olson’s just some partisan crying wolf? Not really.

“We need to figure this out for a statewide strategy,” said Debi Durham, who runs the economic development authority and is one of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s top advisers. She was speaking at the Iowa Broadband Summit in April. “As an economic development tool, this is critical. We’ve done a lot of this right. But we’re just not where we need to be,” Durham said, while asking the audience for ideas on how to expand access.

“I think it needs to be elevated to the governor’s level,’ Durham said. A video of summit presentations can be found here.

So on that point, it appears Olson and Durham agree.

Because even though Iowa’s broadband providers have done a good job expanding solid, basic access, there are pockets of rural Iowa that remain disconnected. And in many of the state’s small towns and county seats, the speed and quality of broadband coverage vary widely. Even within communitities. According to connect Iowa, less than 30 percent of Iowa customers have access to speeds up to 25 Mbps and only about 4 percent can tap into service approaching a blazing 100 Mbps.

That may not matter much to most of us, who have no need for such speed. But, according to the folks I’ve listened to and spoken with over the past several days, it matters a lot in the realm of economic development, where many new businesses looking for locations are looking for very fast, reliable broadband. Not to mention schools and hospitals.

“Broadband is a journey. It’s not a destination,” said Diane Smith, an entrepreneur who left the swamp of Washington, D.C., to found a global video compression business in the mountains of Montana. She’s now a rural broadband evangelist and was keynote speaker at April’s summit.

“In the next 10 years, if you don’t have the infrastructure, your community is going to languish,” Smith said.

This gives many Iowa communities heartburn.

“I do rural round tables where I show up in a town, invite folks to come and we have conversations about the issues that are coming up. Almost every single place I go, the issue of broadband comes up in one way or another,” said Bill Menner, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office in Iowa.

One such recent meeting was in the small southwest Iowa town of Bedford.

“The question was, how can we improve what we have because we can’t attract business with the speeds we have? They’re not competitive,” Menner said.

The good news is, Iowa has 130 local telephone/telecommunications companies that have invested to varying degrees in broadband expansion. In some cases, they’ve expanded the kind of broadband service to small towns that makes bigger neighbors jealous.

The bad news? “It’s a capital intensive issue,’ said Joe Hrdlicka, director of government relations for the Iowa Telecommunications Association, which represents those local companies. “Any place that’s not served or under-served, the investment to enhance broadband network connectivity is not cheap.”

The state has helped. In June, Branstad signed a property tax reform package that includes $16 million in tax exemptions for those telephone companies. That’s money that could be invested in broadband improvements. Give the governor and lawmakers credit.

On the federal level, USDA makes 40-year loans to local firms with service expansion plans. But at the same time, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, changed its rules for handing out money from its Universal Service Fund. Thanks to the changes, local carriers will take a big financial hit.

Iowa’s congressional delegation and U.S. Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack have argued against the move. But has Branstad? After all, he did lobby passionately to prevent the closure of rural post offices.

“I am not aware of any particular public position that the governor has taken on this,” Hrdlicka said. Give the governor a demerit.

Hopefully, dueling campaigns will offer us plans for how they would boost broadband investment. Incentives, regulatory changes, tax reductions, or a combination? But the mission has not been accomplished, and the issue needs to be elevated.

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