COVID-19 exposes Iowa’s broadband weaknesses
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COVID-19 exposes Iowa’s broadband weaknesses

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DES MOINES — The COVID-19 pandemic that is forcing employees to work from home and school children to seek online instruction is shining a bright light on Iowa’s broadband challenges and possibly spurring some accelerated action to address it.

State legislators already were moving bills to help finance incremental broadband expansion in underserved and unserved areas — especially in rural Iowa — and make other improvements. But because of efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, legislators suspended their 2020 session until April.

Sponsors of the bills say it’s unclear whether they’ll bump up the current effort when they eventually are able to reconvene at the Statehouse. But they expect that the “new normal” on the other side of the global pandemic could create a momentum to bring internet statewide, much like the electrification of Iowa in the 1930s through rural electric cooperatives.

“I think that after we’re all said and done with this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Legislature and Congress devote far more resources to get everyone connected because they really now see the importance,” said Dave Duncan of the Iowa Communications Alliance.

“Yes, it was a hot topic already this legislative session; yes, it was a hot topic in Congress already for the last year or two or three,” added Duncan, whose association has 116 rural communications companies serving about 320 communities. “But now it just takes it to almost a top primary concern of most policymakers.”

The issue already is top of mind for state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Ottumwa Republican whose home is located at the city-county line where she said her internet service is sketchy at best.

“I only have satellite or Wi-Fi and it’s variable,” said Miller-Meeks. “Like today when it’s overcast, I may get television, I may get internet, or I may not.”

She said trying to download information can take a long time and she’s not the only Iowan spending frustrating and tedious stints parked on the side of the digital superhighway.

“I know already that I’ve experienced slow internet speeds in Des Moines because of the dramatic increase in the number of people who are teleworking, so in an area that perhaps is not served by as many and as strong of networks as we are in a bigger city, that’s probably even worse,” said Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

State Sen. Waylon Brown, R-St. Ansgar, said much of the immediate focus now is dealing with halting and mitigating the COVID-19 spread, addressing the needs of businesses being forced to scale back or close and the crush of workers losing their jobs and other urgent needs.

But, he said, the newfound reliance on and immediate societal shift to online-based work activities, food ordering and delivery, educational instruction, medical communications and myriad other basic functions is framing the issue in a new context.

“What we were working on was intended to speed up the process and to make sure that more people had broadband, and this is going to bring a whole other layer into that conversation. It is going to bring the focus in as to the importance of making sure that all parts of Iowa are connected with broadband,” Brown said.

“It is definitely showing us where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are and I think there’s going to be a new focus on those issues like broadband to make sure everybody is connected. And the question is going to come. ‘How do we get there in a quicker pace than what we’re already working out?’” he added. “It’s going to be one of the many challenges that we have to deal with.”

Matthew Behrens, the state’s deputy chief information officer, said his office created a state broadband availability map incorporating the latest data — 2018 — from the Federal Communications Commission. It shows only about 65 percent of Iowa’s 216,007 census blocks have access to broadband internet at speeds of at least 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload.

“Because these areas are unserved by broadband speeds, they are likely to have more challenges shifting to online activities such as telework,” he said.

Within the 76,358 census blocks that are targeted service areas — where no provider reported to the FCC that it facilitated broadband service at 25/3 or faster — there are 93,865 households (and a total of 115,039 homes, schools and businesses), Behrens said his office estimates.

However, the state has since authorized two rounds of broadband grants, in April and November last year, to improve availability, Many of those projects are underway, with the average time estimated by applicants to complete their projects being 658 days from the date the grants were awarded.

Those projects still under construction with estimated completion dates by December 2022 are not reflected in any state or federal maps, he added.

Although nearly 90 percent of Iowans have access to broadband speeds of more than 25 Mbps and more than 85 percent have access to speeds of more than 100 Mbps, large areas of Iowa still have no such access, industry officials report.

Gov. Kim Reynolds requested another round of $15 million for broadband grants that is pending before the Legislature when it reconvenes. They grants would help fill significant gaps in high-speed internet coverage in rural Iowa.

Lawmakers are looking to increase the maximum grant amount from 15 to 35 percent for communication service provider project costs that meet a minimum download speed of 100 Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 20 Mbps. Lawmakers would also change the definitions for underserved areas and what constitutes meaningful service.

Grants of up to 15 percent pf the cost would be available for projects offering broadband at lower speeds.

While the governor’s request would not resolve access disparities in every part of the state, Behrens said it would “have a tremendous impact on many who currently struggle to connect to the internet.”

“There is no immediate and short-term fix to connect all locations in Iowa to broadband service overnight,” he said. “Expanding access to every location will take ongoing planning, financial investment and community support.”

On Friday, state officials issued a statement indicating internet providers and software companies are stepping up to help Iowans as more people are needing to be online for work and school, noting a number of providers in Iowa took the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” to provide internet during this pandemic.

The pledge is a commitment for the next 60 days to not terminate residential or small-business accounts, waive late fees and open Wi-Fi hotspots to those who need them.

Among the Iowa providers taking the pledge was CenturyLink — one of the largest networks in the state providing broadband access to more than 1 million homes and businesses.

Courtney Morton, CenturyLink senior communications manager, said her company is working to meet near-term and long-term needs to ensure traffic flows smoothly across the network regardless of increased demand.

But Morton noted, “there are areas in the state where the cost to build and maintain a network makes it difficult to provide access to some homes and businesses.”

She said CenturyLink is working with federal and state policymakers to find ways to address high-cost, hard-to-serve areas.

Duncan said many of his association’s Iowa-based-companies that predominantly are in rural areas have built fiber and adequate bandwidth to their customers inside and outside of town, and in some cases are boosting speeds to meet challenges posed by increased traffic because of the COVID-19 responses.

With about half of Iowa schools located in rural areas, he said, some districts have reached out to companies to go outside traditional service areas to help students by hooking up their homes even though they weren’t existing subscribers. In some cases, companies also have employed “boosters” to beef up signals.

However, Duncan noted that “in terms of trying to hurry up and deploy new networks in the very short term, that’s really going to be difficult for any of our providers because they are focused right now on their own business continuity problems that have forced some of them to close and lock their business offices” of have had to suspend their customer service calls.

On the education side, the state issued guidelines for schools abiding by the governor’s call to suspend the current K-12 school year until at least mid-April and close buildings. Iowa colleges also switched to online instruction, but the spotty availability has complicated that as well.

Because of that and other concerns, state guidelines say online education won’t count toward instructional requirements.

But Piper noted many districts are providing online content options anyway to keep kids engaged and help parents and guardians essentially home-school children or keep them occupied. K-12 classwork can’t be required due to varying bandwidth strength, availability of home computers, special-education provisions and the closure of public libraries, she added.

“It really comes down to the fundamental stance that this is an equity issue and whatever we do at the state it needs to be equitable for everyone in our public schools,” said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 30,000 Iowa teachers.

“It would be very advantageous if our state would provide the resources necessary to school districts to help find solutions to that,” he said of the broadband challenges. “As we continue to move forward in the 21st century and we’re more and more digitally connected, there’ll be more expectations for it to occur.”

Roark Horn, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa, said broadband and internet access is only part of the challenge schools face because there are families within well-served areas that lack the hardware needed to use that access,

“Iowa’s schools would be better positioned to provide learning-from-home opportunities if pockets of underserved broadband and internet service areas did not exist,” Horn said. “Because they do, teachers and administrators need to be mindful of equity and make sure they are not creating learning haves and have nots.”

One short-term option to assist students and families might be for television stations in Iowa or border communities to offer their sub-channels for classroom instruction temporarily as a way to “think outside of the box,” said Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, a member of the Senate broadband subcommittee who has studied the issue and been part of the legislative discussions.

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