Gov. Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature are once again advancing legislation to fill significant gaps in high-speed internet coverage in rural Iowa. Recognizing that high-speed internet is increasingly crucial to Iowans’ farms, businesses and personal lives, Reynolds and state lawmakers are appropriately focusing their efforts on unserved and underserved areas. Although nearly 90 percent of Iowans have access to broadband speeds of more than 25 Mbps and more than 85 percent have access to speeds of more than 100 Mbps, large areas of Iowa still have no such access.
In areas where the private sector cannot reasonably afford to expand systems, the use of taxpayer funds to assist in providing access to unserved and underserved areas can, and should, help make the difference in connecting all of Iowa. The Empower Rural Iowa Act passed in 2019 and recommendations of the Connect Rural Iowa Task Force to increase funding for the Empower Rural Iowa grant program are steps in the right direction.
Unfortunately, too many communities are siphoning their taxpayer and electricity ratepayer funds away from areas in need of service, instead using that money to compete with existing private-sector services. These communities are borrowing millions of dollars to create and run broadband utilities in areas already served by one, two, and sometimes more private sector providers. Taxpayer and electric ratepayer funds should not be used to create a government system that drives out private-sector investment and destroys competition. Without the taxpayer and/or electric ratepayer subsidies, these local broadband utilities are in almost every case not economically feasible.
Taxpayer funds should be used to do things that the private sector cannot or will not do. Providing high-speed internet access to those who do not have it is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. Subsidizing redundant and anti-competitive government systems in areas already served is not.
As Gov. Reynolds rolls out her Invest in Iowa Act across the state in the upcoming weeks, focus will rightly once again be on expanding high-speed internet access in Iowa. A key part of the governor’s efforts this year is a proposal to increase funding to the Empower Rural Iowa grant program, which leverages federal, state and private dollars to connect rural Iowans. By focusing on the needs of the unserved and underserved, the governor and legislators have their priorities in the right place.
Chip Baltimore is a senior fellow of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and a former state representative from Boone.