BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – A $5,000 mapping study spurred by the Lee County Economic Development Group is painting a clearer picture of high-speed connectivity in the county.
The mapping, done by Vantage Point Solutions out of South Dakota, looked at provider coverage, and combined that with information from student surveys of the three school districts in the county to give local officials a better snapshot of where coverage actually exists in the county.
Federal data collection focuses on census block information which can, and does, lead to false coverage data.
The biggest problem with the census block information is that if one home in a block has high speed access, or a school or business, then the whole block is considered to have high-speed access.
But typically in Lee County it’s the one location that has service, while the other homes in the same block can’t get access.
Lee County Economic Development Group President Dennis Fraise said LCEDG took the lead on the project because high-speed Internet access is critical to growth on many different levels.
“Our organization took the lead on that and we’ve been working with the Board of Supervisors, the Keokuk and Fort Madison Chambers, the cities and schools, they’re all a part of this,” Fraise said Tuesday.
“We’re educating ourselves to understand what the future looks like. There are so many speed issues, and we don’t want to be working on what’s good today, but what’s next.”
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure that would allocate just over $1 billion to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program as part of an appropriations bill.
“The need for high-speed broadband access has not been more apparent, whether it is for work, school, entertainment or telemedicine. It should not matter where you live, in the city, on a farm or in a rural community, everyone needs to have access to high-speed broadband. Unfortunately, that is not the case,” said Loebsack.
“This investment will help provide access to those living and working in rural areas. I am pleased the House has passed this important legislation. Now the Senate must now follow suit and invest in this needed infrastructure.”
The new mapping shows dots where students from the three school district’s live and then overlays coverages to get a clearer picture of where needs exist.
Fraise said he just got the map today. The group paid $5,200 for the tool and hopes that some stake holders will jump in and share some of the cost.
Fraise said Iowa got $50 million for broadband efforts out of the CARES Act, but said without a plan, it will be hard to access any of that money. The map will help the county define the next steps.
“You have to have a plan to apply for that money,” he said.
“The long-term goal will be to understand gaps are and to formulate a county-wide plan and then be in a position, when and if funds come available, to work on those issues. But you have to have a plan, and I see that as our role.”
LCEDG also helped form a countywide connectivity committee and he envisions that committee forming subgroups to dive into the information from the new mapping tool to make recommendations.
Fraise said the governments current formula for determining high-speed coverage is a “messy” situation. He compares high-speed connection to the way the government ran electricity to every home.
“This isn’t just southeast Iowa or Lee County, the whole country is facing this, but it’s the role of LCEDG to take a look at what’s next,” he said.
“If you don’t have high-speed Internet to work on, they’re not going to come here. Our role is to be that catalyst to get people to the table. Somebody’s got to push to convene people and that’s the appropriate role for our organization.”
Supervisor Rick Larkin said the board of supervisors should try to find a place to get $1,000 to put toward the study.
“We need to show our support for this and the rest of the folks on the committee could jump in and help,” Larkin said.
Supervisor Gary Folluo said the county already contributes $200,000 to LCEDG, but said there is an absolute need for service in rural areas. He said the COVID outbreak really highlighted the gaps in connectivity.
“It’s brought to light the disservice we have in Lee County because we had school kids that weren’t able to get online to do anything with teachers in the early onset,” Folluo said.
“We have to have this mapping and identification of our weaker areas.”
Fraise said the next step is for the subcommittees to start work on interpreting the map and identifying the next steps towards a comprehensive county-wide plan.