BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – It may be a low orbit satellite grid, or a fiber optic cable, but one way or another, the state’s Chief Information Office says she’s fighting for rural Iowa broadband.
In a Wednesday morning virtual meeting, Iowa CIO Annette Dunn updated about 14 officials from Lee County Economic Development Group, area public school officials, legislators, and business leaders on where broadband efforts currently stand.
“I’m from rural area, I live in a rural area and I brought my children up in a rural area so I’m very cognizant of the challenges of rural v. urban,” she said. “Know that is a passion of mine.”
Dunn said the Empower Rural Iowa Grant has provided some state funding to help. Governor Kim Reynolds allocated CARES Act Broadband grants during the pandemic.
In 2018 the state put $1.3 million into the Empower Rural Iowa Broadband grant program. In 2019 legislators put another $5 million into broadband infrastructure, and then in 2020 another $5 million was allocated from state funds.
The first two Empower Rural Iowa grants in 2018 and 2019 resulted in 24 project applications being awarded with total project costs of close to $57 million affecting 45 counties, 3,276 miles, and 20,290 homes, businesses and schools.
In 2020 in response to the pandemic, Governor Reynolds put $50 million of CARES funding toward broadband grants.
“The problem is that it’s expiring this month. We did do applications where we said there was a possibility of funding after Dec. 31. We’re hoping that gets extended by federal government,” she said.
Dunn said there hasn’t been a lot of that money spent because by the time allocations had been made in August, any projects had to have equipment on site and be “shovel ready” because by October or November its difficult to do dig projects.
“We’re really hoping the federal government extends the CARES funds,” Dunn said.
She said some of that $50 million allocation went to infrastructure and assistance to low-income Iowans.
Matching grant funds for broadband projects were set at 35% for download/upload speeds of 25/3, but there was emphasis made for a higher match of 50% for 100/100 speeds.
LCEDG President Dennis Fraise, said it’s critical that the county be looking at the future and not building for today.
“We don’t want to be building what’s needed for today. We’re future proofing this as much as we can,” he said.
More than $36 million in grants were awarded from the federal CARES funding to 71 applications on projects that totaled $56.9 million. Those projects impacted service to 41,594 homes in approximately 74 counties and 3,812 state miles.
Dunn said some recommendations out of the state’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board included universal access to broadband from all Iowans, increase skilled workforce to implement and build out access, and encourage additional legislative spending flexibility.
Part of that request is an $80 million to $100 million ask annually for infrastructure and access for the next five years with match grants of 50% to 75% to build the network.
One of the newer options is Starlink, an Elon Musk initiative to set up a low-orbit satellite Internet grid. Fraise asked if beta testing is being done in Iowa on that network, but Dunn said she isn’t aware of that.
Dunn said the beta testing costs about $500 for the equipment and $100 a month for the service and she said that was a bit expensive for rural Iowa families. But she said results have been good in Alaska.
Dunn said she was trying to remain neutral on technology used to get broadband to Iowans.
“I’m trying to stay agnostic on all that. Whatever we can get out there that is reliable service.”
Mediacom was a recipient of several grant awards and recently announced free upgrades in speed of service and investments in broadband infrastructure in Iowa. The new upgrades could require the purchase of a new modem to handle the increase speed however.
Fraise asked Dunn how Lee County would best position itself to take advantage with local providers who also have a vested interests in extending service.
“It’s a very competitive process,” Dunn said. “But rural areas are highly ranked and I intentionally made it this way.”
She said having an up-to-date model of broadband coverage is the front door into the grant process and areas with more need will have higher priority.
She said companies should apply for federal funding first because Iowa will allow that to be used for matching funds, but if federal grant officials see an Iowa grant on an application they will hold that against you.
Tim Fencl, CEO of Danville Mutual Telephone said he was happy to see the state focusing on higher speeds.
“Instead of trying to fund the 25/3, now make it a criteria that they also have to provide 100/100 five years out. We should incentivize these projects to get to 100/100,” he said.
The three superintendents of Lee County’s public schools were also on the call. Fort Madison Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater said the Fort Madison district has experienced three different models of learning this year and CARES dollars were used to purchase hot spots for people who didn’t have access at home.
“It’s been a definite challenge,” Slater said. “We feel high speed access is right up there with electricity and water.”
Central Lee Superintendent Dr. Andy Crozier said that district has not gone to a 100% remote learning all year and his frustrations were with cellphone giants Verizon and US Cellular moving to 12-month contracts in the middle of the pandemic.
“We’re now paying for hotspots in the summer because larger corporations are taking advantage of the pandemic. They now lock us into longer contracts when they used to do a six-month.,” he said. “That was very curious in the middle of a pandemic.”
Dunn said she would see what could be done on her end with state contracts to see if she could help districts get better rates.