BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – With Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds looking for a $150 million annual commitment for rural broadband infrastructure funding over the next three years, the roadmap for how to use the funds is still a bit fuzzy.
Lee County Economic Development Group President Dennis Fraise said Tuesday having projects that are ready to move are key to accessing some of the funding.
If the Iowa legislature approves the funding as part of the upcoming fiscal year budget and budgets beyond, they could be used to leverage additional federal funds as well as local private resources to try and not only identify what ‘real’ service looks like, but ultimately connect the county and the state.
“We’ve been taking a look at all the options in Lee County and identifying areas that are under-served, that don’t have access or have minimal access,” Fraise said.
“In other words, the census block mapping which says if one building, say a school, has Internet service, then the whole block has service, which just isn’t the reality.”
Fraise said the $450 million request over the next three years is a big step forward, but admitted that it’s still a relatively small amount when you’re considering rural service for all of Iowa.
Reynolds, along with Danville Telecom CEO Tim Fencl have said projects that are geared toward 100 mpbs speeds for upload and download should draw the attention of grant and funding providers.
Fencl has been very vocal about building systems that can carry that speed, and not putting up slower networks, just for the sake of making the connections.
“The governor has been all about that, too,” Fraise said. “Not building today’s technology that will be obsolete in a few years. Her preference will be for 100 speeds up and down and we will be talking with providers about that.
“We don’t want to be short-sighted in this because I don’t think we’ll get another bite of this apple anytime soon.”
Fraise, who sits on the Governor’s Empower Rural Iowa’s Rural Broadband Task Force, said things are changing very rapidly and pointed to Elon Musk’s Starlink, which is already “lighting up sectors of Iowa”.
The LCEDG president said he thinks in three to five years, Iowa will have a much improved rural broadband structure because of the different technologies out there.
Starlink is a low-orbiting satellite network that is the equivalent of a space net that can provide Internet service to rural areas from the sky rather than towers or fiber optic cable.
But Fraise said it’s going to take all those systems to help connect rural Iowa, specifically rural Lee County.
“It will take both of those to get the rural area served,” he said. “If someone is a mile or two from the nearest fiber, the cost to run that cable that extra mile or two is astronomical and there’s little to no payback in it,” he said.
“That’s where Starlink could be a game-changer for a lot of people.”
When asked what people of Lee County should know now about what’s happening that they don’t, Fraise said they just need to understand that its a moving target, but one that’s getting more attention now than it ever has.
He said there still isn’t a full grasp of the real numbers in Lee County and one of the challenges is still better mapping.
LCEDG spearheaded an effort to create new mapping by using student information at the three public schools to help identify where real service is – and isn’t – in Lee County.
“That’s going to take some effort, and going door-to-door if you will, to understand where we are right now. And I don’t think we really know that yet,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone does.”
The other challenge is making sure there are workers to start the projects once they are in the pipeline, Fraise said.
“Everyone wants to do the build now if the funding is there, but we need to have people lined up to do the work.”