Expanding Broadband Access Across Iowa

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the massive shift of daily life to an almost constant online presence, has highlighted just how crucial broadband access is and just how much work remains in Iowa to provide adequate access. 

Those without access to high-speed internet are unable to work from home, have their children attend virtual classrooms, have virtual visits with family and friends, and participate in meetings, webinars, and other virtual events.

6% of Americans—more than 19 million people—mostly in rural areas, don’t have access to high-speed internet, leaving them at a major disadvantage, according to the FCC. And Iowa is no exception to this problem.

According to BroadbandNow, Iowa ranks as the 45th best-connected state in the US. Despite relatively even broadband coverage throughout the state, speed tests reveal that Iowa’s average download speed is 47.1 Mbps, which is the second-slowest nationwide. Only Alaska’s average speed is slower than Iowa’s.

Iowa Broadband Map

In the case of Iowa, 89.7% of the population has access to a wired broadband connection with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster. However, 302,000 Iowans do not have a connection capable of such speeds, and another 100,000 residents do not have access to any wired connection at their location.

Beyond that, affordability data shows that only 18.5% of Iowa’s population has access to a low-priced internet plan (costing $60 or less per month). This is significantly lower than the national average of 51.5% of consumers with access to a low-priced plan.

How Iowa is expanding access

Despite Iowa’s poor ranking, efforts by the state to expand broadband access have begun to take place in recent years:

Empower Rural Iowa Act

In 2019, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Empower Rural Iowa Act, an initiative aimed at growing opportunities in rural parts of the state by expanding workforce housing tax incentives and grants to boost broadband access. Through the Act, $5 million in new program funds were made awarded to 17 different rural broadband projects.

In March of this year, the Iowa Senate passed legislation intended to expand high-speed broadband access to underserved and unserved parts of Iowa. The bill increased the maximum grant amount from 15 percent 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, and changed the definitions for underserved areas and what constitutes meaningful service.

CARES Act funding

In early August, the state of Iowa was notified that $26.2 million in federal relief would be available to assist with ensuring education continues for those students impacted by COVID-19. Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education said the funding is part of a nearly $3 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund authorized by the CARES Act.

$19.3 million of the awards are available to all 327 school districts and nonpublic schools. The remaining $6.9 million is earmarked for public and private two-year and four-year colleges and universities.

The education department will send the awards directly to districts, which may use them to lease hotspots, provide a discount on broadband internet service or loan devices to qualifying households. The award amount for each district is based on the estimated number of households that lack internet access or struggle to afford it.

The $6.9 million earmarked for public and private colleges and universities may be spent to improve connectivity for students or provide professional development for faculty in online instruction.

ISU research project is focused on lowering cost of delivering rural broadband

A project led by Iowa State University was recently selected as one of two finalists in a national competition to get a city-scale testbed that’s aimed at studying how to bring down the cost of delivering broadband to rural communities.

Leading the project for Iowa State is Hongwei Zhang, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“The challenge today is that once we get out of the urban settings, it becomes much more challenging to get communities connected. said Zhang. “So the question is ‘what kind of technology could serve as a foundation for rural broadband. That’s the objective of the project. The goal is to establish a wireless living lab for developing broadband solutions that are custom-made for rural regions instead of trying to take what has been designed for urban areas to rural areas.”

The ISU project and the other finalist, a project led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will each get $300,000 from the National Science Foundation. Those teams will use the grants to optimize their proposals, with one expected to receive the final full grant next year.

If awarded, the ISU project, “ARA: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities,” would receive a total $18 million in funding and would be just the fourth testbed of its kind in the United States Zhang told Clay & Milk.

The project would provide a wireless network platform across ISU, Ames, Nevada, and other surrounding rural cities, communities, and farms. This network is not intended as an internet service provider for individual customers, but rather to provide a platform for a “living lab” or wireless research related to municipal services.

“This initiative is the beginning of something very exciting,” said Zhang. “We do believe that we at ISU can be a resource for rural communities and want to be able to engage a younger generation in this effort and really drive a new innovation industry within the state.”

Previous coverage

Iowa internet provider Xtreamair acquired by NextLink -Sept. 8, 2020

ISU project named finalist for rural broadband initiative, wins $300,000 grant -July 29, 2020

Working smarter: How state leaders will expand broadband to rural Iowa -Jan. 23, 2018