IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa broadband gets boost but no more money - yet

Reynolds urged 'bold action' in ensuring access

Plastic conduit is coiled on a reel as work continues to install fiber optic cable for high-speed internet in Washington
Plastic conduit is coiled on a reel as work continues to install fiber optic cable for high-speed internet in Washington, Iowa, on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A five-member Senate Commerce panel on Monday advanced the “foundation” language — but no funding — for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priority $450 million broadband expansion across the state by 2025.

Logan Shine of the governor’s office was joined by several presenters who called for the state to use its grant initiative in partnership with private vendors to invest in a bold network expansion to bring 100/100 Mbps broadband internet upload and download speeds to homes, farms, schools and businesses.

Joe Murphy of the Iowa Business Council said an aggressive effort now “will pay dividends later,” while Dustin Miller of the Iowa Chamber Alliance noted “this big investment is needed all across the state,” and J.D. Davis of the Iowa Association of Business & Industry said his group’s members “would like to see the outcome be the 100 by 100 speed.”

However, industry representatives like Doug Struyk, a former legislator who lobbies for Mediacom, urged lawmakers on the Senate Study Bill 1089 subcommittee to build flexibility into the state grant program that would allow fixed wireless systems or other approaches to serve “digital deserts” where broadband challenges may exist.

That triggered a discussion of whether the priority is to provide technology upgrades quicker or cheaper, or get a high-speed network in place for the future that won’t have to be continuously upgraded or become obsolete.

“It’s a huge priority for the governor and it’s a huge priority for Iowans,” said Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, chair of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that advanced the bill to full committee. “I agree I don’t want to have the egg on our face and have something like the ICN. When they built the ICN, the word Zoom probably wasn’t mentioned at the time. I do think we need to think of these things down the road and we need to do it well.”

The ICN — Iowa Communications Network — was created in the 1980s by the Legislature to link state agencies, schools and libraries in the state with a fiber-optic network, but has since been criticized as outdated.

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Shine said he believes the governor’s $450 million initiative will achieve its goal using a public-private partnership with match rates of 25 percent up to 80 percent or higher to address a problem that some have projected will take $900 million to solve.

“The governor has set the bar very high,” said Shine. “This is doable under this proposal.”

In her Jan. 14 Condition of the State address, Reynolds made a nearly half-billion-dollar pledge when she called on lawmakers to establish the goal of getting affordable, high-speed broadband internet access to all corners of Iowa.

Reynolds proposed $450 million in state funding to achieve the goal by 2025. She predicted it will attract “millions more” in private investment in what she said would be “the biggest build-out in the country.”

“I’m done taking small steps and hoping for big change. This is the time for bold action and leadership. Let’s plant a stake in the ground and declare that every part of Iowa will have affordable, high-speed broadband by 2025,” the governor said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced more employees to work and students to learn from home, Reynolds said, highlighted what was already widely acknowledged to be an area of need. She said roughly a third of Iowa’s counties are broadband deserts.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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