Principal exec on broadband: ‘I rest my case’

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted gaps in internet access. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Workforce Development)

Principal Financial Group executive and Iowa business leader Dan Houston was quick to make a point when people attending a state advisory board meeting about Iowa’s economic future were told to turn off their cameras and sound on Zoom.

“The fact that this task force has to turn off their cameras would tell us that we have serious broadband issues in the state and I rest my case,” said Houston, chairman, president and CEO of the global financial firm and former president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. More than 60 people were on the call, and some, including Vermeer Chairwoman Mary Andringa, struggled to keep uninterrupted sound.

Houston said the state’s challenge with broadband is similar to when the state had no mail service. “We made a commitment nearly 100 years ago to deliver mail to rural routes. To hand-deliver, every single day, a piece of mail or a package. And yet we are not willing to make the same investment (in broadband). So we thought it was important to get mail to rural Iowans. I would hope we have as much commitment to broadband.”

Mary Andringa chairs the Iowa Business Council. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Business Council.)

Broadband was a huge topic again as the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board works on recommendations to submit to Gov. Kim Reynolds in October. Board members agreed that the state’s lack of strong broadband access, especially in rural areas, will be a challenge in workforce and business issues, education and telehealth. 

During public comments, Dustin Miller, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, said the state has “massive opportunities’ and that the “prospect pipeline … is very full.”

Miller encouraged the board to make sure that the state has the right tools to attract those businesses.

Ben McLean is CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems. (Photo courtesy of Ruan Transportation Management Systems)

Advisory Chairman Ben McLean, CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems, called Houston’s proposal “bold,” but worthy. “It is going to take some money, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” McLean said.

Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council, which represents Iowa’s largest employers, said broadband and other issues the board is considering will be important in luring former Iowans back to the state to help fill jobs that demand a skilled workforce. 

“It’s becoming clear that many Iowans who are living outside of our borders are reconsidering and thinking about moving back to Iowa,” Murphy said. “People are leaving super cities throughout our entire country. I think it would be very important for this board and others to look at different tactics and strategies to try to capture some of those individuals that are wanting to move back to Iowa for family reasons or just wanting to get away from the big city in general.

Murphy encouraged the board to look at the Invest in Iowa Act “as a framework particularly over some of the different funding mechanisms for recreation and quality of life.” 

Reynolds proposed the Invest in Iowa Act last year, calling for a sales tax increase that would be offset with reductions in property and income taxes. The proposal was shelved temporarily after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the state’s finances and the legislative session.

The board plans to submit its recommendations to Reynolds Oct. 6.