Not so fast, broadband companies tell lawmakers, governor

Mediacom is taking its fight with West Des Moines to the FCC. (Photo by Denny Müller via Unsplash)

Some communications companies told state lawmakers Tuesday that Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to offer state grants to provide high-speed broadband service across Iowa may require speeds that would be hard to provide everywhere.

A legislative subcommittee advanced House Study Bill 133. The action came after industry representatives took issue with the broadband speeds the measure requires before special state grants covering up to 75% of project costs are approved in areas that have poor or no service. 

In short, critics of Reynolds’ proposed legislation said the rules would make it harder to get good service to rural areas.

The bill calls for Empower Iowa broadband grants only for projects that provide service at a minimum of 100 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads in areas with no service or lower-speed service. The bill sets out a sliding scale for grants, with a maximum of 75% of the qualifying project costs for a project in an area that currently has no service.  

Lobbyist Brian Johnson of U.S. Cellular told subcommittee members that requirement would hurt rural Iowa because companies will find it difficult to provide. That could leave areas that still need even modest service out of luck, he added.

“Our concern with the bill is speed. If you want to get it to agriculture and to small towns, it’s just too fast,” Johnson said. 

Doug Struyk of Mediacom Communications Corp., which registered undecided on the bill, said some of Mediacom’s fixed wireless service is providing 100 megabits per second downloads, but 20 megabits per second for uploads. “That would not get a grant” under the legislation, Struyk noted. 

“We believe the speed is set too aggressively,” Struyk added.

Daniel Stalder of the Iowa League of Cities, which is registered undecided on the bill, encouraged lawmakers to add conduit installation as work that qualifies for state aid. Google Fiber has a deal with West Des Moines to install conduit at the homes of willing landowners as part of an effort to improve broadband service. 

Mike St. Clair of the Iowa Communications Alliance said the legislation would be a “huge leap forward” for the state. “We are very much in favor,” Sinclair said, noting some of his association’s members already are providing service that meets the governor’s goals. 

Iowa’s largest business groups have consistently listed high-speed statewide broadband service as critical to attracting workers and their families and persuading them to stay in Iowa. Part of the focus has been drawing digital nomads and others to Iowa’s small cities, where high-speed broadband would allow many to work remotely while enjoying rural life. 

Katie Hall of the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives said the higher speeds would be critical to help rural communities grow. 

“This is going to do a lot for rural Iowa and those communities,” she said. 

Brad Hartkopf of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry said ABI supports the bill. “The pandemic has really been a spotlight on how important broadband is,” Hartkopf said.

No lobbyists were officially opposing the bill by Tuesday morning. Other groups and businesses  supporting the measure include the Greater Des Moines Partnership, Alliant Energy, Principal Financial Group, Iowa Chamber Alliance, Technology Association of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association, Urban Education Network of Iowa, Iowa State Association of Counties, and the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.