CEDAR RAPIDS — Measures to expand broadband access in rural America generally are popular — but where to start can stump lawmakers, in part due to what some say are antiquated data reporting practices for internet service providers.
U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, and Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on Monday led a 10-person roundtable that included representatives from state internet service providers, health care and education groups at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.
Earlier that morning, Finkenauer and Rosenworcel visited farmers and producers in Dyersville who use precision agriculture technologies that rely on broadband service.
One roundtable participant was Duane Willhite, superintendent of North Fayette Valley Community Schools, in northeast Iowa, who represented the Rural School Advocates of Iowa lobbying group.
Willhite said each student in grades 7-12 receives a laptop and several must stay late at school or go to local businesses to use them for online classes, on account of a lack of broadband access at home.
Expanding rural broadband is “vital,” Willhite said, “because our students are taking computers home, and if they don’t have connections, they can’t do the homework and things like that. We really want everybody online to get the best education they can.”
Entrepreneur Afton Stout, of State Center, said she conducts most operations for My Dinosaur Dreams, a custom wedding flower business, using sites such as Etsy and Facebook.
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“A lot of us work from our homes and support of families in rural areas,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without the internet at all.”
Dave Duncan, chief executive officer of the Iowa Communications Alliance trade group, said broadband is at the “forefront” of multiple policy issues, and money can prove to be a challenge in expanding service.
“It boils down to making a business case to serving those customers who don’t have it yet,” he said. “The easy and cheap people have already been hooked up.”
By working together, Duncan said, state and federal programs could help provide solutions.
Speaking to The Gazette after the roundtable, Rosenworcel said, “Right now, broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity for modern life — you’re not going to have a fair shot if you don’t have a good internet connection.”
“We have cities and towns throughout this country that do not have the internet access they need,” she said. “If we’re going to fix that digital divide, the first thing we’re going to have to do is measure it.”
Finkenauer in late July introduced a House bill — the Broadband Transparency and Accountability Act of 2019 — that would mandate ISPs report more in-depth data in their Form 477 filings, submitted to the FCC twice a year and detailing where they offer internet access at speeds upward of 200 kilobits per second, or kbps.
Finkenauer said her bill would require the reporting of new data, including affordability and the location of service “dead zones,” and also produce a more accurate map of broadband service than the FCC currently has so federal dollars can be spent more efficiently.
“As we make investments in rural broadband, we’ve got to make sure that we’re doing so in a very smart and effective way,” Finkenauer said.
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Even if all but one home in a census block lacks broadband, the one home currently qualifies the block as “served,” potentially restricting the city’s access to state and federal funding, she said.
The FCC last week approved a proposal to address that issue and update its broadband data and mapping requirements. Under the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, ISPs will have to report data using “shapefiles,” or polygonal maps of their service areas, rather than census blocks.
“I’m pleased that the agency is starting to improve that. We’re going to have more granular data as a result, but I think we have to keep on working on this because getting this data right is the start of solving this problem,” Rosenworcel said.
How Iowa stacks up in terms of how many residents have access to high-speed internet, defined as 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, in download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, depends on the source.
Though U.S. News & World Report this year ranked Iowa as having the nation’s best infrastructure, citing internet access among its factors, research website BroadbandNow lists the state as 33rd nationwide for connectivity.
That organization found there currently are 343,000 Iowans without access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds; 474,000 residents who have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch; and another 109,000 people with no wired internet providers available where they live.
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