Expansion of Broadband Access

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 30, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests are Brian Waller, president of the Technology Association of Iowa, and Dave Duncan, CEO of the Iowa Communications Alliance, chair of the Empower Rural Iowa task force on broadband connectivity and executive board member of the Iowa Rural Development Council. On the heels of the governor signing new legislation to help build out Iowa's broadband infrastructure, we discuss the expansion of broadband access, its impact across the state and the growing technology industry.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


(music) Updating communication for the 21st century. The issues surrounding Internet access in rural and urban regions of our state are a recurring topic. We dive into the future of Iowa broadband on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)       Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com. (music)                 For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 30 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: Viewers of this program over the past few decades have heard their fair share of governors, senators and state legislators all promote the promise of rural broadband. The ultimate goal of high speed Internet access to all corners of Iowa and rural American has long been linked to economic development. In Iowa, this week Governor Reynolds signed a bill creating a new $100 million broadband grant program and here to discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead are a pair of experts in this field. Brian Waller is President of the Technology Association of Iowa, a member-based group advocating for initiatives in the state's technology economy. And Dave Duncan is CEO of the Iowa Communications Alliance representing broadband providers throughout the state. Gentlemen, welcome to the program. Glad to have you with us. Thanks for making time. Thank you. Great to be here. Yepsen: Also across the table is Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson. Henderson: Dave Duncan, the legislature and the Governor have agreed to set aside $100 million in the next year. The Governor is hoping for a total of $450 over a three year period. Once that investment is made, is it done? Duncan: We hope so. There's a lot of challenges out there that we're currently seeing. There's a lot of good examples of places in Iowa that are connected with great broadband but there's still far too many areas that are not connected. And so we're focusing on the areas that are not connected and those are areas that have already gone through five rounds of prior funding through, we call them NOFA's, notice of funding availabilities, five rounds of funding and they still haven't received bidders to go serve those areas. So that is why this current program has incentivized 75% state funding to really attack and direct money at those areas first. But we do believe that this is going to make Iowa one of the most connected states in the country. Henderson: Brian Waller, the Governor has said this will spur private investment. How much private investment? Waller: Well, it's hard to say how much private investment and I would just kind of counter to Dave, I don't think it will be done with the $40 million. We have members of ours that buy, that invest in technology services and you know you have to enhance, you have to maintain those services. But we all know that if the state of Iowa has broadband connectivity across the whole state, that means rural Iowa has an opportunity to participate in the future economy and in the information economy, which will spur some private investment I believe in those parts. Henderson: The Governor has said download and upload speeds in Iowa I believe universally are the second slowest in the country. Is Iowa, Dave, making the largest investment of any state? Do you know how this compares? Duncan: Yes, it's one of the largest. I just learned the other day that Indiana has also a $100 million program. Some other states, Illinois and New York, have made significant investments. But in terms of what this program does with requiring most of the build out to be 100 megabits download, 100 megabits upload, which we believe is kind of defined as future proof networks, that is really going to take Iowa to the top. Murphy: So before we get too far into the weeds we actually wanted to back out and take the big picture view in this and help any viewers who may have been hearing all of this about broadband Internet and maybe know a little bit but not everything of what we're talking about here. Let me just start with what is broadband? Brian Waller, I'll ask you first. What is broadband Internet? How do we define that? Waller: So, we are kind of technology agnostic at the Technology Association of Iowa and for us that means speed and latency of interacting through the Internet. And so that could be the pipes and the plumbing in the ground of broadband. But we also see broadband as satellite, as cellular, and those are going to be the emerging technologies. That is why this project will never be done because technology moves so rapidly, like I said, cellular and satellite. And so for us it's speed and latency in the Internet and it comes from all different ways. Murphy: And why is expanding broadband access, Dave Duncan I'll ask you, to all areas of the state, why is it important for everybody in Iowa to have access to this kind of Internet service? Duncan: We have just seen in the last year, Erin, two significant events. The pandemic obviously when people are trying to work from home, they're trying to study from home, they have multiple people at home on their computers at the same time trying to do video, Zoom meetings or watching teachers and interacting. That requires a lot of bandwidth. And so we need everybody in Iowa to be connected. The other piece that we've seen is during the derecho last summer, we've seen the need for resilient networks, networks that don't go down when the wind comes through. And so quite honestly a lot of the networks that our members have deployed, fiber optic in the ground, had no outages. The outages were on the electrical side but not on the broadband side. So you've got the need for speed and need for resilience through tough events. Yepsen: Brian Waller, this reminds me of the rural electric cooperatives of the Great Depression era. The government said part of the New Deal rural America is not being served by the electric companies that existed then and so we're going to create a government entity to subsidize and encourage this development. Great, it seems to have worked. You go into rural Iowa now and you can go into any dairy parlor, flip a switch and you've got electricity. Nobody thinks about it. Are we ever going to reach a point with broadband where anybody in rural Iowa is going to be able to "flip a switch" and have big time capacity? Waller: We're going to get there. Yepsen: How soon? Waller: That's a great question and I think anybody that has the answer to that, well I have some oceanfront property in Arizona that I'd like to sell you. But I can tell you that the 1930s rural electrification of Iowa, which you mentioned, this undertaking is exactly like that. And I believe we'll get there like we can flip on a switch in any rural part of the state and I think in the next three to five years, given the Governor's approach, and Dave represents these rural Telco's to make it happen, I think you're going to see extremely increased advancement in the next 36 months actually. Yepsen: Dave Duncan, same question to you. How soon do you think this is just going to be taken for granted? Duncan: I hope soon. The Governor has laid out an ambitious goal and this goal was based on input that she received from Empower Rural Iowa Initiative and from the Economic Recovery Advisory Board. So she has been seeking input from all different sorts of business leaders and community leaders from throughout the state that said, we wanted to connect, or she wanted to connect all Iowans with minimum basic broadband by the end of this year at 25 megabit download, 3 megabit upload, but within four years have all Iowa connected with future proof broadband. And we hope we can get there. One of the problems, Brian kind of talked about it a little bit though, is the goal posts somewhat are moving because as there are new technologies, there's new needs, pretty soon what you think was good bandwidth and service before now is not quite so adequate because when we move to all kinds of new whether it's holographic or 3D or new technologies it's going to require yet even more bandwidth. Henderson: Brian Waller, during debate democrats raised concerns that if you build it perhaps low income Iowans won't be able to afford it. How is that going to work? How are companies that are digging trenches and doing whatever going to provide a service that is affordable? Waller: That is a great question and something I think an important one we need to consider because we're talking about availability and accessibility. The availability will be there but is it accessible to Iowans? So I think there's a couple approaches. There could be a role for government to subsidize to low to moderate income Iowans to be part of this digital economy. But I also can see there's creative communities around the state that are doing things. I look at Cedar Rapids and ImOn Communications, they put in free Wi-Fi around the public library around Cedar Rapids. And every night they would see a car come up for three days and drive away. So finally on the fourth they went up there and they said, what are you doing here? Well, it was two kids doing their school homework in the back seat because they couldn't afford the Internet. And so I think there are creative solutions on the community side that could have free Wi-Fi hotspots on Main Street or a park. But also I do believe it's going to take some sort of government subsidy to make sure these Iowans are not left out of the innovation economy. Henderson: Electricity is considered a utility and there is a utilities board that regulates rates. Is it time for broadband service to be regulated? Duncan: Well the FCC has issued a directive many years ago that said broadband service is to be regulated on the national level, not the state level, because it is an interstate device. So, historically the IUB has regulated telephone service and they have gone through deregulation on the telephone side and one of the reasons was the advent of more competition, but then also to allow some of those companies to focus more on broadband. So we do see on the federal side there's going to be more discussion about regulating services and rates perhaps at the FCC level and for example, to follow up with the question you just had, coming out early in maybe it's middle of May the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program from the FCC will offer significant discounts for broadband service for consumers. Yepsen: Brian Waller, go back to the REC's. When those were created the private companies pushed back against those, it was considered Socialism. A lot of concern in the Republican Party about Socialism today. What do you say to the argument you're just expanding government and government subsidies to create this? A lot of people don't like the idea of that. Waller: I would say we're leveling the playing field. Again, we're trying to revitalize rural Iowa so if you are born and raised in rural Iowa and you don't have to leave to go to a large metro to work in a job, a technology job, but you can do that there I think we're leveling the playing field and we're giving Iowans an opportunity to be a part of the future economy where so many are left out given their lack of connectivity, not only the lack of connectivity but their own skills of how to utilize the vast resources that the Internet offers. Murphy: So we've talked about the different kinds of deserts that exist here either through access or affordability. Part of the whole push behind the Governor's bill and the expansion of broadband is to get access to everyone. How clear a picture do we have of where those deserts are, where those needs are? I'll start with you, Brian Waller. Is that something we have nailed down and a very clear picture of or is that kind of murky? Waller: A very clear picture and I think Dave could probably answer that. But I would say it's not just rural Iowa. You look at the Des Moines Metro area and there are parts where kids were going online in Des Moines public schools that didn't have Internet access or proper Internet access. There's stories of people that go into a different part of their neighborhood to download Netflix then go home so they can watch it because they can't stream. So sure the focus is on rural, but there are urban parts here, low to moderate income neighborhoods that don't have access as well. But I think Dave can really paint that picture. Murphy: Dave, in fact, your organization was attempting to kind of map this, right, to determine on a granular level where these needs are? Duncan: And it is very difficult. And quite honestly the maps that are being used at the federal level and the state level are not entirely accurate because they're based on census block and if there's one consumer that might have access in that census block it is indicated as served and all the other people in that census block say, well what about me? I just heard a media report the other night that Van Buren County was one of the least connected counties in the state and I did a little research this morning on it and I found that we have one company down there, Van Buren Telephone, that actually offers fiber to the home to about 60% of that county. So I'm not sure where that data came from. So there's questions on different maps and different ways of looking at things. Murphy: So I guess that gets to my point, we're throwing $100 million at this, do we know where this needs to be invested? Duncan: Well, there's actually going to be a new mapping project that Connected Nation is working with the state on right now. It's gathering data and it's going to put together a new map that we hope is much better and it's supposed to come out by July 1st. Henderson: Brian Waller, you mentioned the level of technology is always changing. So what is the shelf life for the broadband that most of these grants will be going to, the 100 megabit download and upload speeds? Waller: Today the goal post is continuing to be moved. But I think the first fundamental step is to get the plumbing in the ground and that is broadband. And I think those areas that have no latency, that there's no extra mile getting to that acreage or that farm, that pipe in the ground to me is somewhat future proof. The satellite stuff that we talked about, the cellular, some of those things will constantly change. But that first step to get the plumbing I think is somewhat future proof to what Dave mentioned as well when it comes to weather and different sort of extreme circumstances as well. Yepsen: Dave, how soon before everybody can get four bars anywhere in Iowa? Duncan: On the cellular service? Yepsen: Is this going to have an effect on this? Duncan: Well, actually a lot of people don't realize that all of the cell towers need to be connected with fiber optic cable below the ground. So you've got to have fiber connecting the whole state to have towers over the whole state. Yepsen: So give me a guess on what sort of timelines are we looking at? How long to get all the fiber in? How long before it is usable so you can get four bars out in a corn field anywhere? Duncan: Yeah, and of course part of the problem as you know is topography and hills and trees and things like that and valleys. But we're still, we're 100% with the Governor's program that says within four years we hope to get everybody connected. Murphy: The other push behind this is, you mentioned this Brian, that it's not just rural but that is one of the focuses of this is getting broadband access to rural areas where it may be lacking and there is the suggestion that that will help population loss, help defeat population loss in these areas. I'll start with you, Dave Duncan, on this. How sure are we of that? That is being pushed as a reason to invest all this money in this is it's going to help rural areas and small towns. Are we sure of that? Will this bring people back to those areas in Iowa? Duncan: Especially with telecommuting options, more and more people are able to work from home and not have to move to the big cities to be able to work. I also believe from the other side of things, if a town doesn't have broadband it's going to lose people. So you need to have great access just first of all to keep people in your area, but then with this whole push for universal connectivity then people can work from small towns and enjoy the quality of life in rural Iowa. Waller: I would say along with that there is going to be a challenge. When you give people access to a system of vast resources that they have never utilized before, most people in small town Iowa are still going to the bank to deposit a check where I would typically just do it online. So there's going to be a huge gap, once you give access to these systems how do we upskill Iowans to utilize telemedicine, to utilize banking through a virtual experience, to utilize these systems? I think on the social side once you give them access that is a whole other layer of challenges that will come for Iowa. Henderson: You have described this future proof broadband which is 100 megabit upload and download. But the bill will also now allow grants to go to companies that do sort of a lower technology. Is that worth it? Duncan: Yes. There were discussions throughout the process of this legislation as to trying to keep the 100 by 100 megabit requirement in there. But there were enough legislators who said in their area that maybe the best way to serve these unserved Iowans was through fixed wireless with the antenna and current technology allows fixed wireless to do 120, which is a lot better than what they had before. It's not as great as 100 by 100, but those legislators were saying we want this type of service and this may be the best way to do it. Henderson: Brian, former Governor Terry Branstad about a decade ago talked about connecting every acre because farm equipment now needs connectivity. Is that possible? Waller: It is. And I think sometimes it's not worth that extra mile to get to that farm. But you just mentioned precision agriculture and that is not going anywhere. Autonomous vehicles, someday you're going to look around Iowa and there's going to be driverless vehicles on our roads. You're going to need high speed Internet and connectivity and communication between these vehicles. And I would hate for us to not be part of the future because precision agriculture, autonomous vehicles, creative technology solutions, that is in our DNA. And so we need to be on the cusp of emerging technologies in the future as well. Yepsen: You mentioned earlier upskilling people. Some of us could never program a VCR. We have Iowans who could not access during this pandemic shots because they don't have smartphones. There are great stories of young people helping the older folks in town. So how do we upskill people so they're going to take advantage of this? Waller: I think that is the role of our government, I think that is the role of our school districts, I think that is the role of our communities because once again you're going to give them access to these vast resources that they have never utilized. People are going online and buying homes online without looking at them, but you also have a vast amount of Iowans who aren't comfortable taking that leap just to deposit a check virtually. Yepsen: Harold Hughes is remembered as a great Governor in Iowa because he built the community college system. Is this 75, 50 years from now going to be what we remember Kim Reynolds for? Duncan: I hope so because this is, as far as I know it is one of the biggest investments that the state of Iowa has made in any infrastructure project. Murphy: Dave, you mentioned earlier the pandemic and the derecho and how that has kind of amplified some of the needs. And we want to talk a little bit more about that. So beyond just the need for access, what did either of those events show us for broadband and how important it is to Iowans and their lives especially in times of crises? Duncan: Yeah, and I think Brian has pointed out a couple of great examples. When we're talking about broadband being used for almost every kind of daily purpose and daily activity that people have ranging from when you wake up in the morning to accessing news to getting online and doing, getting your driver’s license renewed and then going to work and communicating with people from across the country, it's just everything is interconnected together and you've got to be connected to be interconnected. Murphy: Brian, same question to you. Waller: I would agree with Dave. I just think the economy is moving at such a rapid speed that you're going to need broadband access connectivity and you're going to need it throughout the state and it's going to be imperative. And I believe the Governor this will be what she is remembered for if this goes through and if she accomplishes this goal. Henderson: Brian Waller, we all have disruptions in our electric service. And I live in a neighborhood where the lines are buried. So broadband is buried. How does this service get disrupted? And are there steps that providers should take to protect from disruptions? What are those? Waller: I think today's point too is when you put broadband in the ground it's pretty future proof. And the communities are working with those individuals. It's the stuff that is going to be in the air, it's the satellites, it's the cellular that are a little more susceptible to winds and other treacherous weather. But I believe, again, getting the plumbing in the ground is the first step to having all Iowans be part of the future economy. Murphy: President Joe Biden's infrastructure package has created this unique debate about what is infrastructure, it maybe expanded the definition. Dave Duncan, is broadband Internet infrastructure? Duncan: Absolutely. Murphy: Why? Duncan: It is as important to people as water, as electricity, especially if you're moving into a new house people are asking almost before they ask about any other type of connections, does this house have good broadband connection? It is so critical to anybody where you work, where you live or where you go to school, where you work. It is infrastructure. Murphy: Brian, do you agree? Waller: Totally agree. And when it comes to funding if a federal government is going to do an infrastructure package we want broadband to be part of that, especially when you talk about electrifying or bringing broadband to rural America and former Governor Vilsack is the head of the USDA that could be a part of that. I think the stars are aligning for Iowa and we want broadband to be a part of the infrastructure conversation. Murphy: The Governor has talked about being able to supplement what she has done with this bill with some assistance from the federal government as well. Do you gentlemen see that as well? Brian, are there opportunities to use federal assistance to even build on what the Governor is proposing? Waller: And I believe that is the plan. We're going to put our stake in the game first, but I believe there's going to be other monies federally coming through. Listening to the Biden administration talk about infrastructure and some of the things that they want to accomplish I think Iowa could really benefit from an infrastructure package. Yepsen: Dave, first responders often times can't communicate with each other. Is this going to fix that problem? Duncan: Actually first responders are taking advantage of FirstNet which is a different network that has been put in place over the past couple of years that gives them dedicated service that would knock everybody else off, give first responders priority service for their devices. And so I believe that this will help but we already have been taking steps to assist first responders. Henderson: That is through cell towers though, correct? Duncan: That is through cell towers. Henderson: Wouldn't it be better to have it through just a hardwired broadband? Duncan: It depends on which part of the first responder and emergency management you're talking about. If you're talking about an accident out in the field or even a mass major event then it's going to be wireless. But obviously the need for fiber to connect all kinds of different communication sources is there. Yepsen: Brian, we've got just a few seconds left. Will this enable to the state to get rid of the Iowa Communications Network, the ICN, the state network? Why do we need that anymore? Waller: You're going to still need the ICN. I don't think you invest so much money in the ICN and then walk away from it. I think this broadband conversation is about the Iowa citizen, it's the Iowa citizen that doesn't have access. And so for us I think the ICN could be utilized in new ways but I don't think it's going anywhere, Dave. Yepsen: Okay. I've got to go someplace and so we're done. (laughter) Yepsen: Thanks to you both for being with us today, appreciate it. Thank you. Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today. (music) Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.