Staff Editorial

Don't wait for federal government, invest in high-speed internet now

Gov. Kim Reynolds, flanked by Iowa Rural Development Council Chairwoman Sandy Ehrig and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, addressed members of three state task forces who traveled to the Statehouse on Wednesday to lobby legislators to support the administration’s Empower Rural Iowa Initiative. The task force members say rural Iowa needs more assistance from the state to address housing shortages and limited access to high-speed internet. The plan issued last December calls for the creation of an Office of Rural Affairs to assist with rural policy development and provide a permanent rural perspective at the state level. The groups also recommended creating a database for rural communities to share available programs, best practices and development strategies.

A rural Iowa summit slated for next week in Grinnell is expected to draw 350 participants from 75 communities to share success stories and discuss housing and broadband needs, Ehrig said. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Gov. Kim Reynolds, flanked by Iowa Rural Development Council Chairwoman Sandy Ehrig and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, addressed members of three state task forces who traveled to the Statehouse on Wednesday to lobby legislators to support the administration’s Empower Rural Iowa Initiative. The task force members say rural Iowa needs more assistance from the state to address housing shortages and limited access to high-speed internet. The plan issued last December calls for the creation of an Office of Rural Affairs to assist with rural policy development and provide a permanent rural perspective at the state level. The groups also recommended creating a database for rural communities to share available programs, best practices and development strategies. A rural Iowa summit slated for next week in Grinnell is expected to draw 350 participants from 75 communities to share success stories and discuss housing and broadband needs, Ehrig said. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

Almost every place in Iowa has access to at least one high-speed broadband internet provider, according to maps published by the Federal Communications Commission.

That’s how it looks to federal bureaucrats, but the view on the ground in Iowa is quite different. People who live in rural Iowa, and the policymakers who represent them, consistently report that access to high-speed internet is a major problem in outlying areas.

The unreliability of broadband access data has been a known problem for several years. Those discrepancies create a problem for Iowa leaders who are making the case that significant state financial investments are necessary to connect every corner of Iowa.

Self-reported data from internet providers tends to overstate broadband penetration, sometimes labeling a whole census block as connected even if just one household in the area has high-speed broadband, Gazette journalists Rod Boshart and Thomas Friestad reported last week. Additionally, real speed tests often do not measure up to advertised speeds.

About 60 percent of Iowa census blocks have broadband access, according to the Iowa Office of the Chief Information Officer, although even that is likely an overstatement.

Iowa’s federally elected officials have pressured the FCC to reconsider the way it measures broadband access. There is now an order in place to revise data collection, but the results may not be available for as much as two years.

Accurate data is important, but Iowa policymakers can’t afford to wait. We know there are sizable gaps in coverage, and the state government has a responsibility to help fill them.

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There have been numerous state and national news stories about the growing need for high-speed internet in the agriculture industry. Farmers need fast, reliable connectivity in the fields to operate advanced tools and collect valuable data about their crops.

Farm tech is a vital application for broadband in Iowa, but it’s not the only one. In fact, there are increasingly few businesses that do not rely on high-speed internet for some of their basic functions.

Outside the workplace, schools and libraries need reliable internet to connect their communities with information. Voters and taxpayers need internet to access the news and government records. Telemedicine is another important piece. And don’t forget services such as Netflix and YouTube, which may seem trivial but are important parts of our cultural lives.

Former Gov. Terry Branstad signed a law in 2015 establishing a $5 million grant program to incentivize broadband development in unserved or underserved areas. The program wasn’t funded until 2018, with a relatively paltry $1.3 million.

Applications outpaced available money by nearly four times, and reportedly leveraged $13 million in investments. Clearly, this is a wise investment for Iowa.

Last year, Gov. Kim Reynolds sought to bolster the program, with a $20 million request. The Iowa Legislature, controlled by her fellow Republicans, only came through with $5 million.

The grant application period ended last week, and we are optimistic it will foster more significant investments.

Reynolds said at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference this month that she intends to go back to the Legislature for an additional $15 million this year. She understands high-speed internet is crucial to growing Iowa’s economy.

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“The first state to figure this out is going to be jobs and connectivity, and that’s where businesses are going to want to locate and expand.” Reynolds said. “That’s a big chunk of our marketing tool.”

State Rep. Pat Grassley, the newly elected speaker of the Iowa House, was non-committal about fulfilling Reynolds’ request, The Gazette reported.

The Reynolds administration correctly sees rural broadband expansion as a necessity. When the legislative season opens next year, we’ll see how hard she’s willing to push her legislative allies to make it happen.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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