For many Iowans, broadband internet connectivity has come to mean more than streaming their favorite TV show or hopping online to see how their fantasy sports team is faring.
Broadband connects us to medical professionals, creates access to educational tools across the state and provides the connectivity needed to service the growing field of precision agriculture.
And yet tens of thousands of Iowans today are considered unserved or underserved when it comes to a high-speed broadband.
“Not having broadband is creating a myriad of issues for rural communities,” said David Daack, executive director for Connect Iowa, a subsidiary of the not-for-profit Connected Nation, which is focused on expanding the nation’s access to high-speed internet. “Broadband’s impact is so far-reaching in everything that we do, and not having it in our rural markets is a big deal. It’s impacting (the people who live there) from all aspects of life, from business to recreation to education and health care.”
What is broadband?
The Federal Communications Commission has established 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speeds as the benchmark for high-speed internet or “advanced broadband.”
Measurements of how many Iowans have access to such level of internet speeds depend on the source.
A U.S. News & World Report, for example, this year named Iowa the best state in the country, citing a number of factors, including access to health care, economic opportunity and infrastructure.
Within the infrastructure category, the report states that 99.9 percent of Iowa households have access to broadband speeds of 25 Mbps or faster — ranking Iowa first in the nation.
Acting Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, who was selected this year by Gov. Kim Reynolds to lead the state’s Rural Iowa Initiative, which includes a focus on broadband access, said Iowa’s proliferation of community-based telecommunications providers — more than 130 statewide — offers a significant boost to rural connectivity.
“It’s not accurate to say all of rural Iowa is not connected,” he said. “While we’re proud of that, I think if you ask anybody, we have a long ways to go.”
The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report found that 92.3 percent of the nation’s residents had access to 25/3 (download/upload) in 2016. In Iowa that year, 90.5 percent of residents had access to that level of broadband.
Meanwhile, only 69.3 percent of rural U.S. residents had access to 25/3 in 2016, compared to 77.4 percent of Iowa’s rural residents.
“We’re outperforming what the national average is, from a rural standpoint, but there is definitely work to be done,” Connect Iowa’s Daack said.
But according to BroadbandNow, an organization that collects and analyzes internet provider coverage and availability, 84.5 percent of Iowans have access to wired broadband 25/3 Mbps or faster, according to November data. With an average statewide speed of 22.1 Mbps, Iowa ranks 38th in the nation in connectivity.
However, the organization also notes that 21 percent of the state’s population is underserved, meaning it has access to less than two wired service providers.
According to BroadbandNow:
- 480,000 Iowans don’t have access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds.
- 520,000 Iowans have access to only one wired provider, leaving no options to switch providers.
- 145,000 Iowans don’t have any wired internet providers available where they live.
Daack said one factor as to why the statistics vary is how they’re collected. Some studies will label an entire Zip code or Census block based on the fastest stream available. Meaning if 25/3 is available in a portion of the ZIP code, the entire area is considered to have advanced broadband, even though some residents might only have access to 5/1 at their homes.
Daack said the first step in addressing Iowa’s need for internet is simply identifying those who are underserved.
“We are advocating that maps need to be more granular — to the street level, to the address, basically. To say that’s where it’s available and that’s where it’s not available,” he said.
The value of broadband
Caitlin Jarzen, director of legislative affairs with the Iowa Communications Alliance, which represents more than 130 community-based telecommunications providers across the state, said the important uses of high-speed internet often can be overshadowed by the conveniences it provides.
“There’s certainly people still who will scoff and say people can live without Amazon or Netflix,” Jarzen said. “And not to diminish those conveniences ..., but it’s so much more than that.”
High-speed internet has become commonplace in school activities. It provides rural residents access to the growing field of telemedicine. And it is crucial in agricultural uses such as precision farming and GPS systems, Lt. Gov. Gregg said.
“It’s absolutely essential for pretty much every aspect of our lives these days, whether that’s agriculture, whether that’s education, whether that’s business. Connectivity, specifically high-speed connectivity, is very important to all of those things,” Gregg said.
For the Iowa Economic Development Authority, access to high-speed internet — which is deemed a critical need by most businesses — also plays a huge role in statewide business growth.
“It’s absolutely essential for pretty much every aspect of our lives these days, whether that’s agriculture, whether that’s education, whether that’s business. Connectivity, specifically high-speed connectivity, is very important to all of those things."
- Lt. Gov. Gregg
“We believe that connectivity is the great equalizer, and it’s truly how you propel growth in all corners of Iowa,” said Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. “If you think about it, you can run the world from any place in Iowa that has that kind of connectivity.”
Josh Byrnes, former state representative and general manager of Osage Municipal Utilities, said he knows firsthand the value of something as simple as fast download speeds — especially with young professionals.
“You’ve got to have good bandwidth in order to support all the technology and the things that they’re doing. If you don’t have that bandwidth in your community, they’re not going to move there,” he said. “I think for us rural communities, we absolutely have to have that infrastructure in place or they’re not even going to take a look at you.”
In Mitchell County, Osage Municipal Utilities is in the midst of connecting a 23-mile fiber line from the Minnesota border to Osage in north-central Iowa.
When complete and online, Byrnes said it will be like going from “a two-lane highway to a 20-lane highway.”
Bernard Dutchik, ImOn Communications vice president of corporate development and strategic partnerships, said his company has been working with Iowa communities to leverage existing infrastructure — such as municipal-owned fiber in Iowa City or old AT&T infrastructure in Dubuque — to build out local broadband networks. (The Gazette’s parent company, Folience, has an investment in Cedar Rapids-based ImOn.)
Without high-speed internet, communities start to suffer, Dutchik added.
“These communities are losing population because of that. They also are building business parks and struggling to fill them because they can’t have high-speed broadband. That’s what all companies need today,” he said.
For more rural areas, where fiber to the home or business is far too costly, Dutchik said a network of towers or wireless internet can be used.
“The way we see it, it’s going to have to be a combination,” Dutchik said.
One of the biggest challenges to providing all Iowans — especially those in rural areas — access to high-speed internet is that it’s not cheap.
The cost of infrastructure necessary to carry broadband — wires, fiber, towers, etc. — is the same regardless of how many customers are at the end of the stream.
“Building out is expensive, and if you’re building out five miles to serve maybe three farmhouses, you won’t see a return on investment charging even somewhat reasonable rates for years and years,” Jarzen said.
At the state level, Iowa’s 2015 Connect Every Acre legislation provides tax incentives to help drive broadband development in underserved areas, funneling nearly $115 million in investment. That translates into 3,136 miles of service across 54 projects in 78 counties, reaching nearly 22,000 homes, 41 schools and more than 4,600 businesses, said Bob von Wolffradt, director and chief information officer with the Office of the Chief Information Officer.
Connect Every Acre’s tax incentives will sunset in 2020, but financial assistance has helped bridge the gap needed to connect underserved areas with providers, von Wolffradt said. Forty-six Iowa-based broadband providers participated in the program, he added.
“I think it’s one of those small success stories that we don’t always see in government,” he said.
What’s more, Gov. Reynolds this May signed into law new property tax assessments on state telecom property. When fully implemented, the bill will mean an estimated $25 million in tax savings for such companies — providing telecom companies with added funds to reinvest in their service areas, Gregg said.
Gregg added that $1.3 million in grant funds budgeted this year — paired with $600 million in federal funds from this year’s omnibus bill — could be leveraged for even more investment in broadband connectivity.
Looking forward, some officials, including Durham and Byrnes, expressed an interest in exploring the possibility of tapping into the state’s existing fiber infrastructure, the Iowa Communications Network, or ICN, as means of expanding Iowa’s connectivity.
Construction on the ICN began in the 1990s, with then-Gov. Terry Branstad touting the fiber network as a distance education tool for connecting schools, Regents institutions and community colleges. The ICN reaches all 99 counties, where connections are leased beyond those termination points to connect to schools and health care facilities, said Mark Johnson, the ICN’s chief operating officer.
When complete, the jewel of the ICN was two-way interactive video, which allowed schools greater access to teaching resources using video broadcasting.
While that video system is phasing out, the ICN still provides educational facilities with access to internet and Ethernet connections, and the network still is important to its users, Johnson said. He added that ongoing upgrades will bring the ICN’s core network up to 100 gigabit capacity, with plans for 200 gigabits.
With an existing network of fiber reaching all Iowa counties, Durham said public-private partnerships could allow for added access to the ICN — beyond users currently authorized by state law, which includes education, health care and public safety facilities and the state and federal government.
“If we could use our backbone in some cases, where it’s already there ... I think we just really have to look at this whole proposition differently than I think we have been willing to do in the past” Durham said.
Johnson did note that connecting to the ICN is more complicated than flipping switch. Upgrades would be necessary, but the network also would need to maintain its core mission.
“If you start adding a large number of users, there would certainly be concerns in respect to power,” he said. “Given the customers that we have, we have to make sure that we maintain backup power as well as redundant connections so that our users don’t lose service for any significant amount of time.”
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