Iowa telecommunications association leader reacts to passage of broadband service expansion bill

(The Center Square) – Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a broadband bill April 28 that aims to increase incentives in the Empower Rural Iowa grants program for providing internet service to underserved areas of the state.

Iowa Communications Alliance CEO Dave Duncan told The Center Square, since Reynolds had included the expansion and increased funding for the Empower Rural Iowa broadband grant program as a capstone legislative priority in her 2021 Condition of the State Address in January, “we [the alliance] knew she would sign it.” He said both the governor’s Empower Rural Iowa initiative and her Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which she put together last year, provided recommendations for the legislation, HF848.

While the legislation revises the structure of the grant program, it is not yet funded since the state legislature is continuing work on budget appropriations.

“All the appropriations kind of wait until the very end of [the legislative] session, so that they keep tweaking them and then ‘boom!’ all the pieces for all the appropriations, all the departments, all the programs, all comes together, and then they push those through all at the end,” Duncan said. “So we’re right in the midst of that right now, but we’ve heard that it’s going to be $100 million for the broadband grant program.”

He said that the unanimous approval of the legislation by both houses and the governor overcame some “behind the scenes” pushback from “other entities” that were trying to “redefine … the future-proof buildout definition” of the program and “slow it down.”

“They would use technology that couldn’t deliver very fast speeds, or they would choose to use technology that wouldn’t deliver very fast speeds because they could do it cheaper,” Duncan said. “So part of the pushback on that was, ‘If we’re going to make a substantial state commitment right here, right now for broadband, let’s do it once. Let’s do it right the first time. Let’s build for tomorrow’s technology, not yesterday’s.’ … We were on the side of the governor’s office and the proposal to have very fast speeds for the buildout standards, which ultimately, for most of the program, will be some of the fastest in the whole country: 100 MB download, 100 MB upload. That’s going to be truly a national lead, and the efforts to dumb it down were not successful.”

He said a compromise in the bill was made for the “very hardest to reach areas of Iowa” that didn’t attract bidders after having gone several rounds of funding. In those areas, the state will accept bids for a 50% match to build out 100MB download, 20MB upload.

“If that compromise ends up getting some service to those areas, then those consumers will continue to benefit,” he said. “In the big picture, we still think that the 100 by 100 buildout standard is preferable for the entire grant program, but we understood the requests of many legislators who said 100 by 20 in the hardest of hardest to reach areas is OK for now.”

Duncan emailed The Center Square data on April 5 that showed that, nationally, the peak usage requirement for a household of four people in 2020 was 85 Mbps download and 48 Mbps upload.

“The average available speed in Iowa in 2020 was only 78.9 Mbps, which is just below the 2020 need for families, but way below the 2021 projected need of 131/73,” Duncan said in a statement in the email.

Duncan said challenges remain for broadband expansion in the near future. Those include “somewhat severe” supply chain disruptions, delays and inability to purchase fiber, equipment shortages, and sufficient contractors to install the fiber as many contractors have already been booked for the year, he said.

“We haven’t seen [a deadline for use of funding] formally yet, but I have heard that the deadline would be for the next round of grants that go out this summer, that it would be somewhere between a 2- to 4-year deadline to use it,” he said.

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