Guest Columnist

Loebsack: COVID-19 shines a light on 'broadband gap'

'It should not matter where you live, in the city, on a farm or in a rural community, everyone needs to have access to high-speed broadband.'

A FTTH (fiber-to-the-home) hub in Marion. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
A FTTH (fiber-to-the-home) hub in Marion. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Throughout the past month, all Iowans have been dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 disease that has spread across our state and nation. From the closing of schools and businesses, many Iowans are adjusting to a new normal at their homes. And that means spending more time on the internet, whether it is for work, school, entertainment or telemedicine. No matter where you live, it has become more and more clear that having access to high-speed broadband is more important than ever. As the spread of COVID-19 continues, it shines an even brighter light on the “broadband gap” that exists between urban and rural communities.

It should not matter where you live, in the city, on a farm or in a rural community, everyone needs to have access to high-speed broadband. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Various studies show that up to 145,000 Iowans do not have access to any wired internet service providers where they live and 525,000 Iowans only have access to one carrier, leaving them without another choice. Overall, Iowa is ranked 45th out of the 50 states in broadband access. Much more can and must be done to close the “broadband gap.”

One of the biggest impediments to getting broadband to rural communities has been the use of faulty data by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to determine broadband availability. Without knowing where the lack of high-speed broadband truly exists, we cannot properly get the funding to where it is needed to build out access.

As a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Telecommunication issues, I led a bipartisan group of colleagues to write and pass the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (Broadband DATA Act). This legislation will help improve the accuracy of FCC broadband data maps by changing the way data is collected. I am pleased that this bill passed both the House and Senate and was recently signed into law by the President. Because of this legislation, we will have a clearer picture of where broadband access is desperately needed.

As COVID-19 spreads, it only becomes more apparent that we must close the “broadband gap.” Across the country, millions of K-12 students do not have access to the high-speed internet needed to take classes and complete their assignments online. It is unconscionable that some families and students are having to drive to local businesses that are providing free Wi-Fi in their parking lots just to do homework. Once the new FCC maps are finished, there must be a large investment from the federal government to build out and connect all Americans to high-speed broadband.

The future of education and economic development in Iowa and across the country depends on access to high-speed broadband. It is unacceptable that today, many families, small businesses, farmers, educators and health care providers don’t have the access they need. Once the transmission of COVID-19 has slowed between people, to ensure a full economic recovery and close the “broadband gap,” getting broadband to those who don’t have it must be a top priority.

Dave Loebsack represents Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House.

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