Business

How fast should rural broadband be? Some precision ag companies in Iowa looking for speed

Bill in the Iowa Legislature would provide larger grants for companies that can provide higher speed internet

Bob Recker of rural Waterloo stands near the antennas he uses for his home internet connection at his home on Monday, Fe
Bob Recker of rural Waterloo stands near the antennas he uses for his home internet connection at his home on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. Recker, who is a retired engineer, now runs a business providing detailed aerial footage of farm fields to farmers. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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WATERLOO — They say the biggest challenge of providing broadband is the last mile to the user’s house. Bob Recker only needs about 1,000 feet.

That’s how far away a CenturyLink fiber broadband line stops from his home just south of Waterloo. Having faster internet would help Recker’s precision agriculture company, Cedar Valley Innovation, which uses drone photography to help farmers increase yields.

Sometimes it takes 10 to 15 minutes to upload the images from Recker’s drone to his computer, but other times it takes a couple hours. There’s another wait when he downloads the images from a software program that adds digital maps and analysis features.

“It’s the difference between doing something in a day or two and doing it today,” said Recker, 72, a retired John Deere engineer.

Larger Grants For Faster Internet

Iowa distributed $6.3 million in grants in 2018 and 2019 to more than 20 internet service providers to extend broadband into underserved parts of the state. But leaders of the state’s Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program see the need not just for more widespread internet, but faster internet.

Iowa Senate File 2662 would increase the state’s share of funding for broadband projects — to 35 percent from 15 percent — if a provider can deliver internet speeds exceeding 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads.

“It’s all, in some ways, relative,” said Liesl Seabert, rural community revitalization program manager for the Empower Iowa initiative. “Someone who has nothing would say, ‘you should be happy’” if you have broadband service at all. But “we want this to not just be a bare minimum, but future proof is a word we hear a lot, to prepare our communities. Create that next level up.”

So what is high-speed internet and who’s providing it?

The Federal Communications Commission’s standard for high-speed broadband internet is 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

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The FCC reported in 2019 93.5 percent of the nation’s residents had access to the 25/3 speeds in 2017. In Iowa, 90.7 percent of residents had that same access.

However, when you look at rural residents, only 77.5 percent of Iowans had access to high-speed broadband in 2017, the FCC reported.

Local Providers Leading The Way

But it’s not accurate to say all rural areas are lacking high-speed internet because some of the most progressive communications companies serve small towns and rural residents.

The Kalona Cooperative Technology Co. provides fiber broadband up to speeds of 1000 Mbps or 1 gigabyte to about 2,600 customers in Kalona, the rural area around Kalona and, now, Washington.

“We offer gig to every one of our customers,” Chief Financial Officer and General Manager Casey Peck said. “Most people don’t need gig, but it’s there if they need it.”

Peck said it was risky for her company to invest in expanding its fiber network to provide high-speed internet in Washington, which already has lower-speed service through larger companies. But they heard from enough residents who said they wanted to upgrade and would support the local company.

“You can’t provide bad service if they are your neighbors and friends,” she said.

Some rural business owners struggle

At his house two miles south of the Waterloo city limits, Recker gets his internet service through LTD Broadband, a Minnesota-based provider that serves Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin with a combination of fiber and wireless.

His internet speed varies, but on Monday afternoon it was 18 Mbps download and 15 Mbps upload — below the federal standard for high-speed broadband.

Recker’s business involves taking hundreds of photos from a drone that flies low over a farmer’s fields. Long morning shadows reveal differences in crop performance, such as a row that didn’t take root because of planter troubles or an area with lower productivity because of too little fertilizer, Recker explained.

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Recker uses the images with digital overlays to show growers the problem areas and find ways to reduce variability. But the faster he can share the files with the farmer, the better for making improvements, he said.

“My goal is to utilize video-conferencing software to review and discuss the content, observations and learning from the imagery in a same day session with the grower,” he said. “In the past I’ve traveled to the grower’s location the next day for this review because of uncertain internet performance on either end.”

In 2017, Recker noticed CenturyLink employees installing fiber broadband lines just down the road from his house and got excited he might have access to faster internet. But when he called the company, employees said there were no plans to extend the service.

CenturyLink, a Louisiana-based company, did not answer The Gazette’s specific questions about extending fiber broadband to Recker and his neighbors. A company spokeswoman said in an email CenturyLink has one of the largest networks in the state, providing broadband to more than a million houses and businesses in Iowa.

“However, there are areas in the state where the cost to build and maintain a network makes it difficult to provide access to some homes and businesses,” Courtney Morton said.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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