PERRY — Against the backdrop of a high-tech tractor and corn planter, Gov. Terry Branstad used a rural Dallas County equipment dealership as his venue Monday to sign legislation designed to help expand broadband access to underserved communities and aid farmers using precision agriculture in unserved rural areas.
“Our state already has a low unemployment rate of 3.8 percent but, to continue our growth, we must look at ways to encourage connecting every acre of Iowa to high-speed broadband,” Branstad said before signing House File 655 into law.
“I’m pleased with the strong bipartisan support this measure received in the Iowa Legislature,” the governor told reporters and others who gathered at an implement warehouse to witness the bill signing. “Together, Iowa lawmakers came together to pass this meaningful legislation to continue building Iowa for the future.”
The measure that cleared the split-control Legislature during the recently-ended 2015 session would establish a state-run grant program, but it would depend on money from the federal government, private-sector investors and non-profits initially to fund the grants. The legislation — one of Branstad’s 2015 priorities — commits no state money to the program but sets up a property tax exemption for 10 years for companies that expand the reach of high-speed broadband service into remote areas.
Provisions of H.F. 655 establish a grant program to award grants to communication service providers by installing broadband infrastructure in targeted service areas that prioritize connecting Iowa farms, schools and communities. The bill also provides for the coordination and facilitation of broadband access in targeted services throughout the state, creates uniform rules and limitations for wireless communications facilities and infrastructure pertaining to cell towers, and requires the state’s chief information officer to lead and coordinate the installation of fiber-optic conduit where it doesn’t currently exist.
Robert von Wollfradt, chief information officer for the state, said up to 60 percent of Iowa currently is equipped with high-speed Internet capabilities and broadband connections, but coverage is “spotty” in some locales.
In signing what he called the Connect Every Acre high-speed broadband bill into law, Branstad said the legislation hopefully will encourage the expansion of high-speed broadband internet to all corners of the state helping to foster growth for modern agriculture, increase access for rural communities and school districts and connect small business to the global marketplace.
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The governor cited a 2014 Battelle economic research study that indicated “sound infrastructure is a prerequisite for economic development.” The Battelle 2.0 study found 31 percent of Iowa businesses surveyed — 13,000 in all — that want higher broadband speeds cannot get it at their current location, and called the uneven development of broadband in Iowa a “great concern.”
John Stineman of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, one of the groups that supported passage of the 2015 legislation, called House File 655 a “a quality piece of legislation” that hopefully will spur more investments and “put Iowa on the cutting edge rather than the lagging edge as we’ve struggled with.”
“When you talk about broadband,” Stineman noted, “it’s huge numbers, huge dollars and what you really have to do is set the table for the private sector to be able to come in and make the investments. The reason why some of these places have struggled with wiring is because it’s so expensive. and there really isn’t a business case to get there, and so hopefully these incentives can help tip the scale so that we can get where we need to go with private investment.”
Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said she and the governor often hear concerns from small businesses that want to expand but can’t due to the lack of access to high-speed internet that impedes growth, and from school districts unable to take advantage of online resources due to limited broadband capabilities.
“Right now today, broadband is a determining factor in instruction,” said John Carver, superintendent of Howard-Winneshiek Community School District. “A child’s education in Iowa isn’t limited by where they are physically, it’s limited by broadband access.”