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Bumpy ride to rural Iowa’s internet superhighway
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Bumpy ride to rural Iowa’s internet superhighway

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DES MOINES — Efforts to bring much-needed broadband internet to rural Iowa have been anything but high speed.

While the Federal Communications Commission has issued maps showing nearly all of Iowa has access to at least one high-speed broadband provider, experts say the reality is there are many pockets of rural Iowa — most notably in northeast, northwest and southern regions — that lack the connections needed for precision farm machinery, cottage industries and school homework.

“There’s actually quite a bit of dispute right now about the extent to which broadband is lacking in Iowa because of the quality and the recency of the data that’s available to tell us that,” said J. Brent Legg, vice president for government affairs with the Washington-based nonprofit Connected Nation. “There are definitely significant pockets of the state where it is lacking, for sure — almost entirely rural.”

Former Gov. Terry Branstad — who likened the broadband expansion to efforts last century to bring electricity to rural Iowa — set a goal of connecting every Iowan, which was later modified to connecting every acre. But six years later, the state appears not close to achieving that standard.

The latest information from BroadbandNow, an organization that collects and analyzes internet provider coverage and availability, ranks Iowa as the 33rd most-connected state in the nation, at a time when elected officials and industry leaders are focused on spurring development to keep residents and jobs in rural towns.

Rural broadband

Jeff Pape of Dyersville harvests soybeans using satellite technology on the land that he farms near his home on Oct. 9, 2019. Pape and other farmers depend on a reliable internet connection to help transmit real-time harvest data to their home computers and co-operatives.  

“Access to broadband is an urgent national issue — most acutely in rural America,” said Shelley McKinley, vice president of technology and corporate responsibility for Microsoft. The company recently announced plans to expand Iowa’s broadband coverage through a partnership with a Texas-based internet service provider as part of its Microsoft Airband Initiative.

“Data shows that lack of broadband access often corresponds with lack of attainment — whether it’s educational or economic opportunities or health care outcomes,” noted McKinley.

“Iowa is very underserved,” she added. “I think Iowa is disproportionally disadvantaged to other states and that’s because our Microsoft data suggest that 70 percent of people living in Iowa don’t access the internet at broadband speed” — defined as 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits to upload.

However, BroadbandNow puts that number at nearly 89 percent, while also indicating that 19 percent of the state’s population is underserved — meaning it has access to less than two wired service providers.

There were 343,000 Iowans who didn’t have access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds; 474,000 Iowans who had access to only one wired provider, leaving no options to switch providers; and 109,000 Iowans who didn’t have any wired internet providers available where they live, according to BroadbandNow’s September data.

Matthew Behrens, the state’s deputy chief information officer, said his office has created a state broadband availability map incorporating the latest FCC data that shows only about 60 percent of Iowa’s 216,000 census blocks has access to broadband internet — though he said that probably “is an overstatement” because there are problems with mapping criteria that need to be resolved federally.

Iowa’s elected federal officials from both political parties have challenged FCC data based on industry self-reporting that indicates all of Iowa has access to at least one high-speed broadband internet provider — and that assumes a whole census block has access if one household in it does.

In a recent letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai raising concerns about the accuracy of broadband maps, Iowa Republican U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst said data in the agency’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report — a document with funding implications for states — “drastically overstates broadband access throughout our state.”

As an example, they said the FCC reports universal broadband access in a rural area of Chickasaw County in northeast Iowa, when usage data available from technology companies “suggests that only 5.9 percent of Chickasaw’s residents access the internet at broadband speeds. That discrepancy is too large.”

The FCC says Iowa has nearly complete access to high-speed internet with all 99 counties covered by baseline broadband download speeds. But other officials say speed tests do not back up that finding.

There is a new FCC order to revise the way the agency collects data, which Legg said is good news for producing more reliable maps that are used to distribute funds for private-public ventures on expanding access to rural broadband.

Still, he said, it’ll likely take 18 to 24 months for the action to take effect.

“You can’t quantify the problem if you can’t measure it. That’s why the maps are important,” he said.

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Dyersville resident Jeff Pape is one of a growing number of farmers to make use of precision agriculture technology — which depends on a good connection — while planting and harvesting crops.

“There are places where it gets a little tough,” he said of broadband service to the land he farms within a 20-mile radius around his home.

If he loses his Wi-Fi signal while using the technology, which digitally logs the field’s yield data, Pape said he must rely on satellite service.

Colin Hurd, founder of Ames-based Smart Ag, spoke at a Connecting Rural Iowa task force meeting last month in Coralville. Rural connectivity, or a lack thereof, has challenged his startup in developing a driverless tractor technology system it intends to bring to market next year.

“We had to do a lot and add a lot of expense to the product to address that challenge, and it’s still an ongoing issue,” he said.

Dan McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa, said a lack of service also can create limitations for law enforcement officials in using the TraumaHawk app the research center developed. State troopers can use the app to send photos and information from car crash scenes to trauma doctors, letting them better anticipate patients’ injuries.

“We have big problems right now because we don’t have service where the state patrol and sheriffs operate,” McGehee said.

Aaron Heley Lehman, a fifth-generation family farmer from rural Polk County who serves as president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said the lack of reliable technology can be a “deal breaker” for farmers looking to upgrade to precision-agriculture equipment.

“What I hear is there is a massive amount of inconsistency” of rural broadband access, he said. “Some people are fortunate enough to have it in their communities, but others don’t have it and can’t get it in any reliable form,” said Heley Lehman. “More and more what I hear from folks is it’s as vital to business development in rural areas as electricity is. It’s just a must-have.”

Branstad signed a law in 2015 establishing an initial $5 million grant program to award service providers that invest in broadband access to farms, schools and rural communities.

But the grant program wasn’t funded until the 2018 legislative session, when just $1.3 million was allocated. The grant program allows broadband providers, cities and towns to apply for up to 15 percent of their broadband project costs in targeted service areas.

The first round of state grant applications produced requests for nearly $4.82 million, almost quadruple the amount of available funding, Behrens noted. But the grants leveraged about $13 million in broadband investment that affected about 750 square files in 12 counties.

At the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Iowa Ideas symposium this month, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she requested $20 million in state funds for expanding access to the digital superhighway with more rural broadband.

But fellow Republicans who control the Legislature “were able to get me $5 million. I’ll go back and ask for $15 million” more during the 2020 session, she added.

“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.” the governor said. “That’s a big chunk of our marketing tool.”

State Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, who has served as House Appropriations Committee chairman but is moving up to the top post of Iowa House speaker next session, said rural broadband is a priority but majority GOP legislators had to balance that with other needs such as education, health care and public safety.

Grassley said his caucus took a “super cautious” approach to budgeting last session given the uncertainty facing the farm economy.

“I would rather take the approach of saying no upfront to making a commitment than having to come back half way through the year and de-appropriating money,” said Grassley, noting that rural broadband likely would be among the top-tier priorities when GOP legislators and Reynolds assemble next year’s state budget.

However, minority Democrats question whether funding for rural broadband ranks high, given the $5 million yearly allotment at the same time the state ended the 2019 fiscal year with a $289 million surplus.

“Despite their rhetoric, Republicans at the Statehouse have failed to tackle key issues that folks living in rural areas and small towns care about, including access to high-speed internet services, access to affordable health care, keeping local K-12 schools open and creating good jobs,” said state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.


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