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Iowa Economic Recovery Advisory Board eyes rural broadband as key issue in second meeting

Chief information officer's internet connection drops while she talks about connectivity

Gazette illustration
Gazette illustration

The lack of broadband access for rural Iowans took the spotlight Thursday in Gov. Kim Reynolds’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board’s second meeting.

The challenge facing many rural Iowans came up repeatedly in Thursday’s Zoom meeting in categories ranging from health care to workforce.

Annette Dunn, the state’s chief information officer, said internet access is as much of a dependency as electricity.

The board had a firsthand taste of the issues coming with lack of internet connectivity.

As Dunn began talking about the need for better rural broadband access, her Zoom screen froze, without audio, for more than a minute.

“What better example do we need, team, than what we have now,” Ben McLean, CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems and advisory board chairman, said during the unexpected silence.

“As I work in a rural area, you can see my challenges as I do telework from home,” Dunn said after she regained a connection into the meeting.

This was problematic for Dunn, with her son home from West Point during the pandemic, but she pointed to how much worse it is for others.

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“I can’t imagine trying to do the e-learning with small children,” Dunn said. “Not having the devices, not having the connectivity.”

The implications of improved internet connectivity go beyond telework and tele-learning, though.

Suresh Gunasekaran, chief executive of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, envisions telehealth as a “real opportunity” to bridge the gap between urban and rural health care access.

“How can we create better rural-urban partnerships so that all rural Iowans can get access to quality care without having duplicative or expensive services that are hard to maintain in these areas,” Gunasekaran said.

That first requires better internet availability, though.

“That is a huge issue of course for rural Iowa,” said Kelly Garcia, director of Iowa Department of Human Services and interim head of the Department of Public Health.

AJ Loss, CEO of Bush Construction, also sees connectivity as a way to recruit people permanently working remotely to live in Iowa.

“Remote working is not going to go away,” Loss said. “How can we attract the workers to Iowa that now have the option to work remotely from Iowa for a company that is based out of another state?”

Discussion about rural broadband challenges in Iowa is certainly not exclusive to the Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Heather Gate, the director of a group establishing public-private broadband partnerships across the country, told The Gazette more than 300,000 Iowans do not have access to wired, high-speed internet.

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The Economic Recovery Advisory Board will meet again July 24, with another four meetings scheduled after that.

In October, the board will present final recommendations to the governor.

Reynolds “asked us to re-imagine our economic recovery and take the inertia for change that we have seen and use that to drive innovation in Iowa for the benefit of all Iowans,” McLean said.

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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