Bridging Iowa's Digital Divide
April 9, 2021 | Bridging Iowa's Digital Divide
Working remotely and schooling from home during the pandemic in 2020 highlighted the need for
improved broadband internet access. Iowa ranks 45th in the nation in broadband access and has the second- slowest internet speed nationwide, with an average download speed of 78.9 megabits per second, according to BroadbandNow.com. High-speed internet is rarely offered throughout much of the
state and only 18.5% of Iowans have access to affordable internet plans, which is below the national average of 50.1%, according to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission awarded $143 million to 11 broadband providers in Iowa through the Digital Opportunity Fund Phase 1 Auction, a federal program focused on increasing broadband access. Nearly all rural locations eligible for the award will receive broadband at download speeds
of 100 Mbps and about 85% of eligible locations will receive gigabit service, according to the FCC. To be considered broadband, a connection must have a download speed of at least 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds of 3 Mbps. About 35% of Iowa households lack this 25/3 benchmark for broadband speed, according to the
governor’s office. Earlier in 2020, Reynolds funneled $50 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act funding to improving connectivity in the state. As part of her 2021 legislative priorities, Reynolds proposed a $450 million investment by the state to improve broadband access. The program would incentivize
private providers to invest in broadband infrastructure, to be partially repaid by grant funding.
ADVANCING THE WAY WE LIVE AND WORK
Lumen Technologies has invested more than $2.7 billion in broadband infrastructure in Iowa cumulatively and now operates more than 450,000 connections and nearly 9,000 fiber route miles throughout every region of the state. “Connectivity is obviously critical, and this past year has shown that to all of us,” said Taylor Teepell, director of government affairs and public policy for Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink). Improving broadband access for rural Iowa, while important,
has been cost prohibitive for private providers to take on alone. “The challenge that exists out there is this large rural area that historically has been uneconomic to serve. These are expensive technologies,” Teepell said. He said the governor’s broadband initiative is a tangible step forward. The move could not only improve connectivity infrastructure but strengthen economic development in Iowa. “I think that what you're seeing is real leadership by the governor and the Legislature and state leaders, who are continuing to drive really smart policy that is beneficial to businesses in general,” he said. “What they're pursuing right now with this broadband
grant program that the governor has proposed, and that the Legislature is working through right now, is extremely aggressive in a positive manner. I would say it is one of the most aggressive programs being presented in the country and will be a game changer for the state of Iowa. It is going to drive investment into these areas
that historically the business case didn't exist to be able to get down to those really, really high-cost areas.” Teepell said Lumen Technologies is committed to continuing
to invest in Iowa’s broadband infrastructure.
RURAL BROADBAND A CRITICAL NEED
Another connectivity provider, AT&T, has also invested significantly in Iowa’s infrastructure. According to Dustin Blythe, director of external affairs for AT&T Services in Iowa and Nebraska, the company has invested nearly $110 million in Iowa in capital expenditures between 2017 and 2019. Nationally, AT&T invested
more than $105 billion from 2015 to 2020 in wireless connectivity. “AT&T wants to credit Iowa policymakers for the steps they’ve taken to create a positive environment for investment,” Blythe said. “In 2015, legislation supporting macro towers to support our wireless network was enacted. Then, in 2017, the Legislature passed
legislation allowing for a statewide regulatory framework for the deployment of small-cell technology [cellular improvements].” As of six months ago, 99.9% of Iowa’s population is covered by the AT&T mobile broadband network, Blythe said, following several improvements to infrastructure. Providing access in rural
areas, however, remains a challenge, he said. “Areas that still lack high-speed internet often pose unique challenges such as difficult terrain, sparse population and limits of technology, [which] combine to create a barrier that few providers have been able to overcome without outside funding,” Blythe said. “Support from the federal government can tip the scale and create a business case in favor of deployment, but only if the requirements that come with that funding are reasonable and clear.”
One of AT&T’s investments in rural connectivity is its work with the First Responder Network Authority to build and manage First-Net, a nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform for first responders and public safety agencies. The platform uses boosted Band 14 spectrum set aside specifically for FirstNet.
“We look at Band 14 as public safety’s VIP lane; in an emergency, this band, or lane, can be cleared and locked just for FirstNet subscribers,” Blythe said.
IMPROVEMENTS IN TELEHEALTH CONNECTIVITY
The pandemic has also underscored the lack of access in Iowa to health care services in some rural areas, said Ashley K. Thompson, director of government and external
affairs for UnityPoint Health. “With the pandemic came concerns for some of our patients who were fearful of seeking care in their local clinic or hospital but were unable to access care through telehealth because of limited broadband access,” said Thompson, who also serves as a board member and executive committee
member of the Iowa Rural Development Council and as a board member for the Iowa Rural Health Association. High-speed internet is an important tool in the use
of telehealth, which allows doctors and other health care providers to connect with patients in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, she said.
“For many Iowans – and in particular, those living in rural communities – broadband serves as a critical gateway to accessing health care,” Thompson said. “With statewide and national shortages of providers like psychiatrists and neurologists, for example, the use of technology like telehealth can bring these important physical and mental health care services to Iowans who would otherwise not have direct access to these types of services in their homes or local hospital or clinic.”
Without a reliable broadband network, health care providers are unable to connect with patients in their homes as well, and see firsthand how patients are progressing,
whether that be physically or mentally. “Ensuring that Iowans and health care providers have universal access to fast, affordable broadband will help remove barriers to accessing lifesaving care and addressing social determinants of health through telehealth services,” Thompson said. “Access to broadband is a critical step in
putting all of us, regardless of whether we live in an urban, suburban or rural community, on more equal footing.”
CONNECTING EVERY FIELD
One of Iowa’s largest manufacturing companies, John Deere has been at the forefront of improving connectivity for the agricultural industry. As agriculture becomes more
competitive, farmers have increasingly turned to technologies such as robotics, sensors, aerial imagery and GPS to become safer, more profitable, efficient and environmentally friendly. Farmers manage a complex set of data each season that influences the decisions they make on the field, from spring tillage to ground compaction, to number of seeds planted, soil conditions, spray applications, yields and more. An average farm can have more than 350 billion data
points to consider when trying to produce the best yield, said Ryan Krogh, senior product manager for connected fleet at John Deere.
“Some of these larger operations are moving fleets across multiple fields, getting the people trucked there at the right time, making sure the seed
stays full in that planter and that customer can keep their planter running to optimize their operation to take as much waste out of their system as possible,”
Krogh said. “Connectivity enables all of that. It allows that grower to see on their phone or on their tablet or their desktop in real time where their machines are
at, how they're running. That planting window is really only about three weeks wide. So how do we make sure that we help that customer get their crop in at
that optimal window?”
Agronomics and connectivity allow farmers to plan out their planting season ahead of time, so they’re not playing a guessing game when they turn on their equipment.
“I think about the farmers I visit and the complexity of their operation and all the decisions that they have to make on a day-to-day, even minute-by-minute standpoint,
and all the day-to-day input that they have to take and make these decisions,” he said. “They make all these decisions through spring planting and they try to analyze
it and view it and bring in all these inputs together, and it's very complex. And yet you don't get to see the outcome of that decision until months later when you're actually
harvesting the crop. What we are truly trying to go after is how do we get the data in our customer's hands exactly when they need it to make better decisions?”
Krogh pointed out that the average farmer doesn’t get the chance to test out their data very often. “A 20-year-old taking over their family farm probably only gets to run that experiment about 40 times in their life,” he said. “They'll have 40 times to get it right. How do we help them make better decisions each and every time?
A big part of that is getting the data from the customer's operation directly to the decision-maker as fast as possible, in real time. Connectivity is just a huge part of how that data transfers from the customer's operation into a form that they can ultimately use. They can't do that without connectivity across that customer's entire operations.”
At least 19 million Americans lack access to broadband. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population, or 14.5 million people, are without broadband service, according to the FCC. To help combat that, the FCC last year established the 5G Fund for Rural America, which will provide $9 billion for 5G wireless broadband connectivity. About $1 billion of that fund is focused on precision agriculture. “I think that's key, that's a major government initiative and acknowledgement that we have an opportunity to close that gap and drive broadband out to more rural communities for use in agricultural applications,” Krogh said. Not only do John Deere’s green tractors come equipped with such advanced technology, the company’s factories are increasingly outfitted with automation, internet of things, artificial intelligence and other technologies. Running such advanced manufacturing operations requires high bandwidth, which is why John Deere worked with the FCC to bring 5G to more rural areas in Iowa. As part of the 5G Fund for Rural America, John Deere last year bid for and won a Citizens Broadband Radio Service auction operated by the FCC for 3.5 gigahertz spectrum access. The win means John Deere will implement 5G in its factories in Rock Island, Ill., and in Dubuque, Scott County, Polk County and Black Hawk County in Iowa in 2022. “We participate at multiple levels trying to advance initiatives around expanding broadband coverage to all rural communities, and we continue to advocate where we can and try to drive visibility to that issue,” Krogh said. Deere’s acquisition and network buildouts could end up improving access for farmers as well. If so, it would fit with one of the company’s goals, to improve connectivity in rural areas for farmers. “We don’t just want every farm connected, we want every field connected,” Krogh said. “We want every customer connected.”