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Amid Pandemic, Iowa Lawmakers Focus on Digital Divide

Republicans and Democrats in the Iowa Legislature say they plan to pay special focus on bridging the state's so-called digital divide, a tech discrepancy gap that has been accentuated by the outbreak of COVID-19.

A word cloud featuring the words "digital divide" and related terms.
(TNS) — Republicans and Democrats in the Iowa Legislature say they plan to pay special focus on bridging the state's so-called "digital divide."

Lawmakers said they intend to push forward additional funding and legislation to facilitate continued expansion of high-speed broadband internet across the state, with more and more Iowans working and learning from home and accessing medical care online.

The Iowa Legislative session begins Monday.

House Speaker  Pat Grassley  has established a new Information Technology Committee in the Iowa House, to examine broadband and cyber security issues and focus on state technology infrastructure.

"I think those were issues that we knew were on our radar that needed to be addressed but I think that (the pandemic) amplified them and put them right in our face," Grassley, R- New Hartford, said of broadband expansion moving to the forefront this session.

"Those last miles are so expensive," Grassley said. "Broadband is a very expensive proposition but it's not something that we shouldn't try to partner with private industry to try to address."

Entire workforces, colleges and K-12 education have shifted online, as companies and schools emptied due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

Canceled entertainment and sporting events and restrictions on social gathering also drove millions of Americans to rely on home broadband networks to stream entertainment and interact with the outside world, advancing the need for more robust broadband internet.

Carriers, including Mediacom and CenturyLink, suspended data usage limits, waived late fees, ceased terminations due to financial hardship and boosted speeds for low-cost home service to support learning and working from home early in the pandemic.

But lawmakers and broadband advocates say the coronavirus also exposed truths about the digital divide, where lagging internet service has left rural businesses, school districts and students stranded.

"There are haves and have nots, and with the current pandemic the have nots have been left at an extreme disadvantage, whether they're trying to telework, access telehealth care, complete online assignments or participate in distance learning in a virtual classroom, or reach new customers online," said  Bill Menner , executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council.

The latest information from BroadbandNow, an organization that collects and analyzes internet provider coverage and availability, ranks Iowa as the 45th 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.

"Despite relatively even broadband coverage throughout the state, speed tests reveal that Iowa's average download speed is 78.9 Mbps, which is the second-slowest nationwide," according to the website. "Only Alaska's average speed is slower than Iowa's. Even with slower internet speeds, monthly internet prices run higher than many other states."

BroadbandNow indicates that more than 300,000 Iowans lack access to a wired broadband connection with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster. Another 100,000 residents do not have access to any wired connection, and 457,000 Iowans have access to only one wired provider at their residence, leaving them no options to change providers if the need arises.

Beyond that, about 18.5% of Iowa's population has access to a low-priced internet plan costing $60 or less per month, significantly lower than the national average of 51.5% of consumers with access to a low-priced plan, according to BroadbandNow.

State lawmakers last session increased the maximum grant amount available to service providers from 15 percent to 35 percent of project costs that meet a minimum download speed of 100 Mbps per second and a minimum upload speed of 20 Mbps per second, and changed the definitions for underserved areas and what constitutes meaningful service.

Calling high-speed broadband "critical infrastructure" for rural areas, Gov.  Kim Reynolds  last year sought $15 million on top of the $5 million provided under the state's Empower Rural Iowa Act. And lawmakers expect the governor will again make broadband expansion a priority in her annual Condition of the State Address and state budget proposal.

The money would go toward improving connectivity and adjusting the state match to leverage private and federal funding in an effort to build out broadband to every part of Iowa to become the most-connected state in the nation.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Reynolds last month announced more than $140 million had been awarded to 11 broadband providers in rural Iowa as part of a $20.4 billion federal initiative to bring high-speed internet service to unserved or underserved rural areas.

The Federal Communications Commission funding is in addition to $50 million in federal coronavirus relief funds Reynolds designated for increasing rural broadband access. In total, the state has put out $45 million for broadband investment between CARES Act and Empower Rural Iowa broadband grants over the past three years for broadband infrastructure and development. That will benefit up to 63,460 homes, schools and businesses in Iowa, according to the Office of Chief Information Officer, which administers the grants.

"But it's still scratching the surface of what's needed to make sure that Iowan is connected," said Menner of the Iowa Rural Development Council.

Rep.  Brian Lohse , R- Bondurant, chair of the new House Information Technology Committee, looks "forward to a more robust conversation and more urgency" to tackling broadband issues.

"We need to look at what needs to be done to break down those barriers," for providers to expand broadband to underserved and unserved rural and urban areas of the state, "including funding to more rapidly address the expansion of both fiber as well as other technologies — satellite, cellular, fixed wireless or TV whitespace."

House Appropriations Chairman  Gary Mohr , R- Bettendorf, echoed Grassley and Lohse.

"For Iowa to be compete in the future marketplace nationally and internationally we have got to invest more money in broadband expansion across our state, not just in our cities, but in our small cities and rural areas ... to keep Iowa competitive," Mohr said.

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 2020 fiscal year with a $305 million surplus.

State Sen.  Jim Lykam , D- Davenport, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, where broadband policy issues are decided, proposed lawmakers allow the Iowa Finance Authority to bond up to $80 million to $100 million for community broadband expansion projects using the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund as a revenue source. The IFA issues tax-exempt bonds, providing the lowest cost funds for drinking water and wastewater facilities in Iowa,

"We have to spend the money in these types of areas and ( Democrats will) work as hard as we can," Lykam said, adding he hopes Reynolds "will shed some light on this in her State of the State address."

It's a proposal supported by  Curtis Dean  and  Todd Kielkopf , co-founders of Community Broadband Action Network, based in Indianola.

Using the IFA, communities could pool their borrowing risk to set up broadband connections, just as cities are able to do for water and sewer projects, Kilekopf said.

State Sen.  Jason Schultz , R- Schleswig, is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. His parents live on a gravel road in western Iowa and still rely on dial-up internet service.

Schultz said while broadband "is of utmost importance," funding alone will not solve the issue and that providers are looking for a broader plan from state officials to guide and protect long-term investments expanding broadband service to rural areas.

"There simply isn't enough money to run fiber every mile," he said. "It's not feasible. ... The mission of the Commerce Committee is to level the playing field and get out of the way and let employers and employees bring us back to the top, post-COVID.

"We have players who want to invest ... and it's our job to get out of the way and make sure that those that want to pitch in have every opportunity."

(c)2021 Quad City Times, Davenport, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.