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The latest push for broadband in Iowa
Efforts accelerate to bring high-speed internet to the parts of Iowa lacking that service
Next year could be a big one for broadband expansion in Iowa.
As funding from the state became available in July, many internet service providers are looking for a funding boost to expand fiber networks and bring Iowa up to speed.
Gov. Kim Reynolds in May signed a bill to provide $100 million of state funding to expand broadband access across the state. Her goal is to have universal broadband statewide by 2025.
In January, Reynolds, in her Condition of the State address to the Iowa Legislature, had called for $450 million over three years to implement statewide broadband. Lawmakers and the governor later settled on the $100 million.
The state still has a long way to go to ensure every resident has high-speed internet access.
Iowa is ranked 45th in the country for state broadband access, according to Broadband Now, a website that tracks broadband pricing and access data. The ranking is based on “access to low-price plans, wired broadband coverage and friendliness to broadband competition.”
Goal by 2025
In addition, Iowa comes in 43rd among the 50 states in average internet speed, according to an April article from highspeedinternet.com.
The $100 million is coming in the form of grants that internet service providers — including private sector carriers, local governments and utilities — have been applying for since July 1.
The goal by the end of 2021 is to connect every Iowan with basic broadband that has download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speed of 3 Mbps.
Then, within three years, the goal increases to every community having broadband connections of 100 Mbps.
Supporters of broadband expansion are expected to be back in the Legislature next year to push for more funding from lawmakers.
This year was the sixth time Iowa has set aside public funds to expand its broadband infrastructure.
The 2021 dollar amount was twice the size of the next largest round. It also came with a new method of assessing need, with three tiers for varying amounts of need, meaning a larger area will be eligible for improvements.
Where service is lacking
On July 1, the state’s broadband access maps were updated, showing where broadband access is needed.
Targeted service areas were organized into three tiers based on the access to service the areas already have.
- Tier 1 means a maximum speed of less than 25 Mbps and maximum upload speed of less than 3 Mbps. For applicants within Tier 1, 75 percent of total project costs can be covered by the grant.
- Tier 2 means a minimum download speed equal to or greater than 25 Mbps but less than 50 Mbps. For Tier 2 applicants, 50 percent of total project costs can be covered by grants.
- Tier 3 means a minimum download speed equal to or greater than 50 Mbps but less than 80 Mbps. In Tier 3, 35 percent of total project costs can be covered by grants.
The July map identified 10,052 households in the Tier 1 category around the state, 61,191 households in Tier 2, and 35,038 households in Tier 3.
Previous rounds of funding have been offered only in areas with below 25 Mbps. Other rounds also required providers to build only 25 Mbps, but offered incentives for projects offering download speeds up to 100 Mbps.
The grants are to be awarded in September.
Iowa Deputy Chief Information Officer Matt Behrens said he receives questions and concerns from Iowans every day about broadband access across the state, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to work and learn from home, requiring a strong internet connection.
“We are seeing an evolution in everyone’s understanding on the importance of this to educate our kids, work remotely and connect with our health care providers,” Behrens said. “This really did change in the pandemic. It started out seen as a tool to watch Netflix and now it enables our ability to participate in daily life.”
Behrens added that the return of investment in expanding broadband access will be broader economic growth.
“When we look at the academic literature, there are important returns to economic growth for areas that have broadband access versus areas that don’t,” he said. “This can help revitalize rural areas and you’ll see increasing opportunities for business and agriculture.”
Zack Mannheimer, chief executive officer of Atlas Community Studios, a Des Moines company that helps rural communities grow through strategic planning, echoed Behrens.
“It’s pretty simple,” Mannheimer said. “There was a need for broadband before the pandemic. The pandemic just exposed it.”
Atlas has helped small communities apply for grants to expand broadband, and Mannheimer expects that part of the job to increase over the next year or two as more state and federal funding becomes available.
Rural areas in Iowa have lost population each decade since 1910, according to an Iowa State University study.
“Only the metros have grown, and they aren’t pulling people from outside the state,” Mannheimer said. “They are pulling people from the rural areas, and part of the reason people leave is access to broadband. You need high-speed broadband to have a good quality of life.”
The other issue aside from access is affordability, Behrens said.
“How do we deal with affordability where it’s a problem?” Behrens said. “It’s one thing to build out a connection. It’s another to make sure Iowans can afford to subscribe.”
Internet service providers around Iowa have told The Gazette they plan to apply for funding to build out fiber networks in rural areas.
Alpine Communications, for example, plans to focus its efforts on north Clayton and Fayette counties.
In Washington County, the Kalona Community Telephone Cooperative plans to apply for funds. But General Manager Casey Peck said the infrastructure costs make it difficult to provide high-speed internet in rural areas, even with grants.
Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Richert said the company has been able to expand its fiber network affordably by taking advantage of the company’s 63,000 electric poles already in place.
“It’s one of the ways that makes us unique as an electric co-op,” Richert said. “We don’t have private investors. We are collecting from the rates to help meet the need and extend the network.”
Richert said the co-op’s broadband expansion has been underway for five years. It’s aiming to build 2,500 miles of fiber in four counties — Jones, Jackson, Delaware and Dubuque.
“We’ve built over 2,200 miles of fiber, so a little over 500 a year,” Richert said.
The co-op has more than 5,000 customers signed up for internet service in the counties.
“We initially did a survey of our members and 22 percent said they didn’t have access to quality internet services that met their needs,” Richert said. “Seventy percent were limited to speeds less than 15 Mbps.”
The electric cooperative was formed in the 1930s to bring electric service to the rural Eastern Iowa when no one else would or could, Richert said.
“We looked at the survey, and we envisioned it to be a similar conversion as what happened in the ’30s with electricity,” he said. “We thought, ‘This is it. This is a huge part of what rural Iowa needs,’ and the feedback we’ve received has definitely proven this was and is a need.”
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