Iowa broadband expansion brings accuracy, affordability questions

By: - July 19, 2021 4:11 pm

Iowa’s new broadband expansion program is already receiving applications and some questions. (Photo by Franck via Unsplash)

Iowa’s new broadband expansion program is already generating interest from providers, but the mapping of broadband and affordability of the service remain in question as the process moves forward.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed House File 848 into law in April, a bill that appropriates $100 million for grants to companies to provide high-speed broadband services to areas without it in the state. The grant applications opened July 1.

Matt Behrens, Iowa’s deputy chief information officer and chief technology officer, said his office already has applications coming in alongside some disagreements over what areas in Iowa are the most underserved. 

Iowa recently adapted its mapping of broadband in the state to show where the most underserved areas are, Behrens said. Projects in the most underserved areas can access more grant funding than those in better-served locations.

“There’s always a lot of engagement with the provider community and members of the public, really, when we talk about the application program,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of interest and we also have a challenge period for the map right now, so we really encourage folks to look at the map and, if things are problematic, to provide us with that feedback.”

He said applicants can be providers, communities that are interested in providing the service through rural electric cooperatives, or other entities that will provide broadband. Challenges to the map can be submitted by providers and residents of Iowa.

Changing how Iowa maps broadband

The state’s broadband map now shows different tiers for census blocks that need the most improvement in their broadband service. Overall, the state ranks 45th in broadband access with the second-slowest internet in the country. 

Iowa’s broadband availability map. (Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Information Officer)

The map is currently facing some questions regarding its accuracy, said Iowa Communications Alliance CEO Dave Duncan. The alliance represents more than 100 community-based telecommunications providers, some of whom Duncan said are applying for this funding. 

While these companies fill out their applications before the July 28 deadline, Duncan said some are seeing discrepancies between the map’s understanding of service and consumers’ realities. 

“We have data from consumers that say that they don’t have the service that some of the other providers are claiming they’re providing,” he said. “We believe some providers are overstating the speeds they offer or the geographic coverage of the availability of some of the services so that nobody else can come in and get funding in those areas.”

He said mapping of broadband service is always difficult, but rulings on challenges by the Office of the Chief Information Officer are expected by August.

The new mapping also shows how much in state funding companies could receive. In the most underserved communities, which are labeled as Tier 1, up to 75% of the cost can be covered by grants. Behrens said the tiers also add more clarity for applicants.

“Right now, the way the project’s design works is it’s trying to provide those incentives at the highest levels in the areas that need it the most,” Behrens said. “… There are 9,862 Tier 1 targeted service areas in the state. And there’s about 10,000 households within those areas.”

Affordability concerns

While the legislation opens opportunities for more accessible broadband, there is still a concern about affordability, said Brent Legg, executive vice president of Connected Nation. 

“One of the larger issues that will need to be addressed, is not just the access to physical broadband infrastructure, but the affordability of the service,” he said. “We’re going to see the affordability issue become more and more prominent in policy debates and competition in rural areas will drive down prices. It’s another factor of legislation like this.”

Margaret Buckton, an advocate for Rural Schools Advocates of Iowa said she is also concerned about affordability as broadband expansions continue to be funded by the Legislature. Without competition that drives down cost, she said rural parts of the state will continue to see disparities in broadband access. 

“Down the road, we’ll have to address the affordability of the internet,” she said. “We have a lot of rural schools with more than half the students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, which means their families probably cannot afford the internet. Internet has to be regulated so that it is affordable for all families.”

The COVID-19 spotlight

After a year of working and learning from home and telemedicine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for expanded broadband services in Iowa is clear, Buckton said.

She said the funding allows for a breakdown of the “homework gap,” where students without internet access fall behind in school because of a lack of internet access, as well as better access to online classes.

“Internet access has always been a concern for rural schools, and it was really highlighted during the pandemic,” she said. “We had a student who had to take his AP test in a tractor because the GPS had a better connection than he did at his house. We had students and staff who had to drive to schools to connect to hotspots even though school wasn’t physically in session.”

Buckton said the funding could also allow for less money to be spent on textbooks and physical resources if quality internet connectivity becomes universal in rural communities. 

The legislation will also allow for better access to health care, said Brian Waller, the president of the Technology Association of Iowa. 

“One of our members, UnityPoint Health, is doing telemedicine at an increased level now, in big large metros, and rural communities that are trying to access their health care providers,” he said. “To do that, you need internet speed and latency so there are no hiccups in access.”

The economy is also projected to benefit from House File 848, Waller said. As telecommuting grows in various sectors of the economy, he said rural Americans will have better access to jobs with bills like this.

“Technology infrastructure is absolutely what Iowa needs to be focused on to be part of the future economy, and the state is,” he said. “An impact of this legislation overall is access to the workforce. There is a war for talent going on right now and this can really flatten workforce issues.”

National broadband expansion

Iowans are working to expand broadband across the country, too. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced the Assisting Broadband Connectivity Act with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., last week. 

The bill looks to streamline funding for broadband in rural America.

“This bipartisan bill makes common-sense updates to help areas connect all the pieces from both the state and federal level to get some of these expensive and urgent rural broadband projects done,” Grassley said in a press release. “Completing these projects in every corner of our state is critical infrastructure to people’s lives and livelihoods.”

Behrens said Iowa’s law stands out compared to other states by increasing the internet speed it asks companies to create. The legislation moves the standard investment to 100 megabits downstream and upstream. 

“In prior years, eligibility was based on whether or not broadband was available at a speed level of 25 megabits per second down, three megabits per second up,” he said. “… What we are looking at now is a different concept.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.