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Iowa's digital divide is undeniable thanks to coronavirus

Many in the state don't have the bandwidth, and some don't have home internet access at all. So what's the solution?

Jun 22, 2020 at 6:30 am
    Workers with Slabach Construction of Kalona on Thursday connect lengths of plastic conduit to pulling eyes before pulling the plastic tubing through a newly bored hole as work continues to install fiber-optic cable for high-speed internet in Washington, Iowa. In a first-of-its-kind study, Iowa Communications Alliance officials have enlisted engineers to analyze how much of Iowa currently is unserved by broadband. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    DES MOINES — While Iowans aren’t exactly zooming through the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no question technology has been the linchpin for many to weather the disruptions, isolation and life changes that are as insidious and novel as the virus itself.

    Internet usage in Iowa has surged since COVID-19 arrived in the state and a national emergency was declared in March. Iowans are downloading and uploading data at significantly higher rates in a new normal requiring them to work, learn, shop and seek medical help from home to avoid large gatherings and maintain safe distances necessary to slow the viral spread.

    But issues of quality, speed, availability, reliability and cost have underscored inequities that digitally divide Iowans and raise concerns over ensuring access to anyone who wants or needs to traverse the information superhighway — similar to the way electricity and other technological advances became an essential element of society.

    “I think across the country people have really woken up to the idea that the internet is no longer just a luxury that we watch Netflix on,” said Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, a nonprofit company that tracks data on 2,665 internet providers in the U.S. market. “It’s really a prerequisite for so many aspects of modern living and I think that has done a lot to shift the public perception on broadband access as well, especially in rural areas.”

    ‘We’re not going back to the way things were’

    By necessity, Iowans of all ages are reshaping the way they do things and becoming much more electronic-device reliant as they find new methods to perform old tasks or forge new models for doing business, getting educated, meeting people and conducting commerce in a period of societal transition that is challenging, exciting and scary.

    “There’s no going back,” said Brian Waller, president of the Technology Association of Iowa, a consortium of 350 tech companies that is leading celebrations this week hailing innovation during a June 22-26 period that Gov. Kim Reynolds has proclaimed as technology week in Iowa.

    “We’re not going back to the way things were,” Waller noted, saying he has “been really in awe” with the way that Iowans, businesses, institutions, nonprofits, professionals and most aspects of daily life have used creativity, “nimbleness” and innovation to adapt to changing realities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “I think this is a big transition, but I think it’s going to be for the better. I think it’s going to be pretty special when we come out of this,” Waller said. “I think this is something special that we’re going to get through, but we’re all a little nervous.”

    The successes and setbacks, the pluses and minuses of life in semi-quarantine over the past few months are indelibly etched in the minds of Iowans who lived through it. But the future still holds opportunities and much uncertainty regarding the possible coronavirus resurgence, the continuing build-out of Iowa’s internet capabilities, the real-life or virtual classrooms, the evolving work settings and so much more.

    Iowans and their technological skills have been put to the test as companies and employees move their workplaces online; health care providers rely on telehealth to connect with patients; people use the internet to apply for resources, seek assistance or purchase necessities; teachers and students use broadband to connect; and devices help families keep in touch with friends and loved ones.

    “We’ve all learned to use Zoom to do everything from catching up with our grandkids to conduct local board of adjustment meetings,” Reynolds told Iowans last week. “Education, health care and so many other sectors of our economy were forced almost overnight to innovate and adapt to survive.”

    Trying to understand the challenges

    Officials with the state Department of Education have set a deadline this week for survey responses from administrators at Iowa’s 337 school districts detailing technology availability and challenges facing their districts as educators make plans on how best to deliver instruction beginning in August.

    Also officials in the Reynolds’ administration are working through details for expanding internet and technology capabilities by way of a new round of grants and other vehicles for using at least $85 million in federal CARES Act money to meet needs in Iowa’s unserved and underserved rural and smaller communities.

    Along with that, the Federal Communications Commission has announced a rural digital opportunity fund aimed at spurring more rapid deployment of broadband networks to unserved Americans that looks to commit up to $20.4 billion over the next decade to support up to gigabit speed broadband networks in rural areas.

    Dave Duncan, chief operating officer of the Iowa Communications Alliance, a group of more than 130 telecommunications providers who offer broadband, telephone and digital television service to rural Iowans, said his members are awaiting the rules, application processes and other details for the new government public works offerings. But in the meantime, they are still in the process of building out the state’s internet capabilities.

    Alliance officials also have enlisted engineers to conduct a first-of-its-kind study into how much of Iowa currently is unserved by broadband and much it would cost to “build out ‘future-proof’ fiber networks to all of Iowa so that at least we have a big picture number.” He said he hopes results would be available by July.

    “As far as I know right now, there is no such estimate on what it costs and what is the scope of unserved Iowa right now,” Duncan noted. “It’s not going to be the answer, but it’s going to frame the issue and what public policy and private initiatives need to be.”

    Working from home and competing for bandwidth

    In internet-challenged areas, Iowans have faced new issues as parents and children compete for bandwidth to meet their work-at-home obligations and complete homework assignments over multiple devices.

    Some work-from-home Iowans, such as Bruce Tweeton of rural Linn County, have had to adapt to the new realities of making the best of DSL internet — the connection issues logging in to the company network, the laptop reboots, the slow app responses and challenges downloading and uploading files.

    “My working from home environment is sitting on a love seat with a laptop sitting on my lap and a mousepad on the arm of the love seat. I call in for online meetings using my cellphone for audio,” Tweeton said in an email. When possible, which is about 25 percent of the time, he completes his tasks by leaving home and going to his job site to stream multiple remote video connections or use high-bandwidth applications.

    Steve Purcell, a Mediacom group vice president who oversees operations throughout most of Iowa, said his company saw a surge in upstream activity, which he attributed to more Iowans working from home. He said the higher usage has tailed off some since April’s peak but still is nearly 20 percent above normal.

    “We’ve definitely seen an increase in overall usage with people working from home,” noted Purcell, whose company has more than 400,000 Iowa customers in 309 communities and a network that potentially could reach 1 million homes.

    Likewise, Steve Hill of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association said there has been a surge of interest among Iowa customers in satellite as a technology that can be delivered anywhere without having to wait for the infrastructure.

    “With COVID-19, we’ve been very busy,” both with installations and customers increasing their data plans because they’re doing more from home, Hill said.

    Internet a ‘needed resource, not a luxury item’

    However, Dave Peters, an Iowa State University associate professor of sociology and an extension rural sociologist, said finances must factor into the equation as well.

    “You can get good internet service but it costs money and not everyone has that kind of money,” he noted. And not all regions of the state have high-speed broadband connections — further exacerbating the digital divide and limiting Iowans’ ability to telecommute or access tele-health services remotely.

    “People saw this as more of a recreational divide than an essential divide,” said Peters, “but the coronavirus pandemic has really highlighted that when things like this happen and we have the ability to move things online and do things like education, then that becomes a huge equity issue. If you’re going to move instruction online, then that internet connection becomes almost like a public utility. It’s a needed resource, not a luxury item.”

    Mark Lane, superintendent of the Decorah Community School District, a district with about 1,700 students in rural northeast Iowa where the hills, valleys and even cornfields pose a challenge for delivering internet service, told a recent online congressional roundtable organized by U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, that staff and students in his system faced challenges in using their devices.

    To address internet inequities, Lane said, the school board acted to install outdoor wireless antennas at the district’s five campuses so students — weather permitting — could sit in the bleachers at the football field or at a picnic table at the playground of an elementary school to do their online assignments. Parents also indicated they were taking children to their workplaces to access the internet during off hours.

    U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the House majority whip who has championed rural broadband expansion, told the Finkenauer meeting he encountered similar stories of rural Americans telling him how the parents would come home from work each night, load their children in their cars and drive to the local library that already had closed so they could sit in the parking lot to do their homework while tapping into the library’s Wi-Fi.

    He also spoke of a rural Georgia high school football teams that would load students in school buses after practice and drive to local fast-food restaurants to use the Wi-Fi to do their homework in the parking lot.

    “That just got to me. This country should not allow that to happen,” said Clyburn.

    “We know now from this pandemic that the best thing that we could do today — or maybe the greatest thing — is to have broadband in every home,” like the electrification of America in the 1930s, he added. “We ought to treat the information highway the same way we treat interstate highways.”

    Cooper said a key challenge facing policymakers and industry leaders is the lack of a unified strategy at the national level.

    “There’s no game plan to say this is the mixture of technologies that we’re relying upon or this is the road map to closing the digital divide,” he noted.

    Waller said one outgrowth of the evolving workplace and the role of technology could be that people become “a little more unchained from their office desks.”

    He said the post-pandemic business world also may see companies moving away from bricks-and-mortar corporate settings since there has not been a perceived drop-off in employee productivity under new workplace models.

    Anne Zalenski, an associate dean at the University of Iowa who has been involved in the teaching, technology and distance and online learning areas, said rapid change was forced upon many aspects of education. She said some practices likely will change as a result of the COVID-19 experience, such as faculty using Zoom for office hours that are more convenient for students, but she expected the changes to be “around the edges” while the overall mission of the university remains being a residential campus with a “small but robust” online presence.

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