IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa lawmakers push solutions to bridge 'digital divide' amplified by pandemic

Fiber-optic equipment is shown Dec. 22, 2015, at the Mediacom office in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
Fiber-optic equipment is shown Dec. 22, 2015, at the Mediacom office in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

Republicans and Democrats in the Iowa Legislature say they plan to pay special attention this session to bridging the state’s “digital divide.”

Lawmakers said they intend to push forward additional funding and measures to facilitate continued expansion of high-speed broadband internet, with more and more Iowans working and learning from home and accessing medical care online.

The 2021 legislative session begins Monday.

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley has established a new Information Technology Committee to examine broadband and cybersecurity issues and focus on technology infrastructure.

“I think those were issues that we knew were on our radar that needed to be addressed, but I think that (the pandemic) amplified them and put them right in our face,” said Grassley, R-New Hartford.

“Those last miles are so expensive,” he said. “Broadband is a very expensive proposition, but it’s not something that we shouldn’t try to partner with private industry to try to address.”

Workforces, colleges and K-12 schools have relied on virtual connectivity like never before out of concerns about spreading the coronavirus. Canceled entertainment and sporting events and restrictions on social gatherings also drove millions of Americans to rely on home broadband networks to stream entertainment and interact with the outside world.

Carriers including Mediacom and CenturyLink suspended data usage limits, waived late fees, ceased terminations due to financial hardship and boosted speeds for low-cost home service.

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But lawmakers and broadband advocates say the coronavirus exposed truths about the digital divide, where lagging internet service has left many rural businesses, school districts and students stranded.

“There are haves and have nots, and with the current pandemic the have nots have been left at an extreme disadvantage, whether they’re trying to telework, access telehealth care, complete online assignments or participate in distance learning in a virtual classroom, or reach new customers online,” said Bill Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council.

The latest information from BroadbandNow, an organization that collects and analyzes internet provider coverage and availability, ranks Iowa as the 45th most-connected state in the nation, at a time when elected officials and industry leaders are focused on spurring development to keep residents and jobs in rural towns.

“Despite relatively even broadband coverage throughout the state, speed tests reveal that Iowa’s average download speed is 78.9 Mbps, which is the second-slowest nationwide,” according to the website. “Only Alaska’s average speed is slower than Iowa’s. Even with slower internet speeds, monthly internet prices run higher than many other states.”

BroadbandNow indicates that more than 300,000 Iowans lack access to a wired broadband connection with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster. Another 100,000 residents do not have access to any wired connection, and 457,000 Iowans have access to only one wired provider at their residence, leaving them no options to change.

Lawmakers last session increased the maximum grant amount available to service providers from 15 to 35 percent of project costs that meet a minimum download speed of 100 Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 20 Mbps, and changed the definitions for underserved areas and what constitutes meaningful service.

Calling high-speed broadband “critical infrastructure” for rural areas, Gov. Kim Reynolds last year sought $15 million on top of the $5 million provided under the state’s Empower Rural Iowa Act. And lawmakers expect the governor will again propose making broadband expansion a priority.

The money would go toward improving connectivity and adjusting the state match to leverage private and federal funding in an effort to build out broadband to every part of Iowa.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Reynolds last month announced more than $140 million had been awarded to 11 broadband providers in rural Iowa as part of a $20.4 billion federal initiative.

The Federal Communications Commission funding is in addition to $50 million in federal coronavirus relief funds Reynolds designated for increasing rural broadband access. In total, the state has put out $45 million for broadband investment between CARES Act and Empower Rural Iowa grants over the past three years. That will benefit up to 63,460 homes, schools and businesses, according to the Office of Chief Information Officer.

“But it’s still scratching the surface of what’s needed,” said Menner.

Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, chair of the new House Information Technology Committee, looks “forward to a more robust conversation and more urgency” to tackling broadband issues.

House Appropriations Chairman Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, echoed Grassley and Lohse.

“For Iowa to be compete in the future marketplace nationally and internationally we have got to invest more money in broadband expansion across our state, not just in our cities, but in our small cities and rural areas … to keep Iowa competitive,” Mohr said.

Democrats, in the legislative minority, question whether funding for rural broadband really ranks high, given the $5 million yearly allotment at a time the state ended the 2020 fiscal year with a $305 million surplus.

State Sen. Jim Lykam, D-Davenport, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, proposed lawmakers allow the Iowa Finance Authority to bond $80 to $100 million for community broadband expansion projects using the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund as a revenue source. The authority issues tax-exempt bonds, currently providing the lowest cost funds for drinking water and wastewater facilities.

“We have to spend the money in these types of areas and (Democrats will) work as hard as we can,” Lykam said.

State Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. His parents live on a gravel road in western Iowa and still rely on dial-up internet service.

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Schultz said while broadband “is of utmost importance,” funding alone will not solve the issue and that providers are looking for a broader plan from state officials to guide and protect long-term investments.

“There simply isn’t enough money to run fiber every mile,” he said. “It’s not feasible. ... The mission of the Commerce Committee is to level the playing field and get out of the way and let employers and employees bring us back to the top, post-COVID.”

Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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