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CEDAR RAPIDS — The latest surge of government aid to expand broadband access in Iowa is much needed, industry experts say, but the goal of universal coverage by 2025 remains formidable with the most challenging underserved or unserved areas of the state yet to enjoy high-speed internet connections.
Participants in The Gazette’s annual Iowa Ideas conference this week said a new round of $200 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding being offered to Iowa providers comes as cities, counties and state officials decide how to use more than $1.5 billion in infrastructure money that also can be applied to capital-intensive broadband projects.
“It’s a great start, but there’s still a long way to go,” said Chris Hopp, general manager of Elkader-based Alpine Communications, which serves Clayton and Fayette counties.
He was on an Iowa Ideas panel that included Dave Duncan, chief operating officer for the Iowa Communication Alliance; Kent Van Metre, vice president of client services for Fiberutilities Group, which among other things manages the state’s audio-video Iowa Communications Network; and Kevin Cabbage, general manager and chief executive officer of the Farmers Mutual Telephone Company based in Stanton.
“It most definitely is not enough to solve this problem, but it’s a great start,” agreed Cabbage. “There’s been a tremendous amount of money awarded. Unfortunately, we’ve only just begun.”
Duncan, whose trade association represents about 115 locally owned and operated broadband providers across the state, said the state previously awarded nearly $100 million in grants in September but had applications for about $300 million in projects costs — many in targeted, tiered service areas totaling nearly 86,000 locations across about 15,000 square miles in the hardest to serve places in Iowa.
“So we’re talking about lots and lots of Iowans who still don’t have access to future-proof broadband,” Duncan said.
“Most of the Iowans who were cheapest and easiest to hook up to broadband have been, so we have left the most-expensive people in the most sparsely populated areas — in the rocky areas, in the hilly areas, etc. — and it’s going to cost a lot of money to make sure that we treat everybody equally and give them access to the best internet,” he added.
Cabbage noted that in his four-county area in rural southwest Iowa, it costs about $35,000 per mile for a fiber optics installation. Yet there might be only two houses on that 1-mile stretch so the cost per household is significant, and government grant or loan money usually doesn’t fully cover the expense.
“We want people to have top-notch services but it does come at a cost, especially in rural areas to build and maintain these types of networks that everybody so desperately needs right now,” he noted, especially to build “future-proof” capacity of 100 megabits per second download and upload speeds that can handle ongoing technology upgrades.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, who set a goal of connecting all of Iowa to affordable, high-speed broadband by 2025, said she continues to hear from Iowans that they “still lack access to the broadband speeds necessary to start a business, telework or connect with a health care provider."
During an Iowa Ideas appearance this week, Reynolds said the state already has about 200 potential applicants expressing interest in the latest round of grant money being released, with the program already providing about $175 million in assistance that has resulted in $357 million in investment.
“There’s a lot of interest there and a lot of need,” said Reynolds, who wants to see Iowa become “the most-connected state in the nation” as a tool that can be marketed. To that end, she called for allocating $450 million in funding for broadband to hit that 2025 target.
“We’re going to be pretty close to that by the time we get done,” she said during an Iowa Ideas interview. “We’ve been aggressive on trying to get the money out there because we know that it’s important to try to get ahead of the supply-chain issue that we’re experiencing out there as well.”
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