Smart cities, smart farms, artificial intelligence, internet of things — what do they all need to work properly? Broadband.
But for many people in rural America, Iowa included, broadband is not readily available.
Places where tractors, robots and drones could perform tasks and gather data to reduce input and improve yields, need broadband as much as Wall Street; where field trips, long-distance learning and endless amounts of data can be gathered without ever leaving the home or classroom needs broadband as much as to the finest university research facilities; where medical care could be a click away and not an hour or more drive each way needs broadband.
It’s time Iowa “talks softly and carries a big stick,” as it pertains to rural broadband availability, and makes broadband accessibility a top priority.
That’s not to say there aren’t positive things happening in the public and private sectors to expand broadband. It’s just that more needs to be done to close the digital divide that exists between urban and rural markets.
Here’s what the public sector has done recently:
The 2018 legislative session allocated $1.3 million from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund to help expand broadband in Iowa. This grant program allows broadband providers, cities and towns to apply for up to 15 percent of their broadband project costs in targeted service areas.
Gov. Kim Reynolds rolled out the Empower Rural Iowa program. This program includes a broadband component and highlights points necessary to strengthen rural broadband expansion:
• Mapping — Understand where high speed broadband is, and is not, available
• Future Ready — Target funding for tomorrow’s connectivity needs
• Platform neutral — Target funding on performance and affordability, not platform
• Prioritize low connectivity areas — Go to areas where broadband is needed most
• Reward partnerships — Target projects that effectively use public and private partnerships
• Identify a consistent source of funding for broadband grant program.
The farm bill was passed in December 2018. This bill provides $350 million in funding over the next five years dedicated to the expansion of broadband to rural markets and contains three areas of funding:
1. Expansion of middle-mile infrastructure — $10 million per year
2. Innovative broadband advancement — $10 million per year
3. Community Connect Grant Program — $50 million per year)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released the ReConnect Program. The program’s funds — $600 million — will be divided into three pools of $200 million:
1. 100 percent grant program
2. 50 percent loan and 50 percent grant program
3. 100 percent loan program.
From the private sector
• Iowa Communication Alliance, a strong telecommunications trade organization, represents 135 carriers that provide broadband service to rural Iowans.
• Mediacom is launching gig service to all its urban and rural Iowa communities along with a number of rural broadband carriers in Iowa that are certified gig-capable providers by NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association.
• Acre Broadband, ImOn, Unite Private Networks and others continue to focus on bringing broadband services to sparsely populated and hard to access areas.
• Electric co-ops are expanding their service offerings to include broadband such as Allamakee-Clayton Electric Coop and Maquoketa Valley Rural Electric Coop.
• Technology advancements in the satellite and mobile industries are making rural broadband expansion more appealing.
What can Iowa do to close the divide?
1. Make broadband a priority.
2. Strategize, plan, implement and educate.
3. Create beneficial public-private partnerships.
If the 20th century was the transformative time for rural electricity and telephone access, then the 21st century is the transformative era for rural broadband access. It’s time broadband access is available to all.
• David Daack is a broadband consultant-relationship broker in Dubuque with experience directing broadband companies, projects and community planning teams.