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Broadband bill seeks to bring high speed internet to rural areas

contributed photo — Senate File 390 seeks to improve internet speeds and access in Iowa’s rural areas and it’s received bipartisan support.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priority legislation to provide accessible and affordable broadband internet access to Iowans has moved out of a senate subcommittee this week. The legislation has received bipartisan support.

Senate File 390 seeks in particular to improve internet speeds and access in Iowa’s rural areas, addressing the “digital divide.”

“There are a great number of students and people who have access to any kind of content at their fingertips that they would like and it gives them an advantage over people who don’t,” Marshalltown Schools Director of Technology Amy Harmsen said.

She said since the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for reliable and affordable internet given the implementation of hybrid learning and total online learning, her job has been focused on providing students with accessible internet since last March. She found 30 percent of Marshalltown residents do not have access to high quality internet or any internet at all.

“From what I’ve seen here in Marshalltown we have the infrastructure, but we have people here who can not afford it,” Harmsen said.

Harmsen

She said in order for the legislation to be a worthwhile endeavor, the plan must equally address affordability for low income individuals as well as providing infrastructure for high quality internet in underserved areas.

Another factor incentivizing the plan is to attract businesses into Iowa that would otherwise be deterred by the state’s low quality internet access.

“In order to introduce and encourage businesses to come to some of these small town Iowa communities, they have to have that internet capability,” Rep. Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) said.

The governor’s website states about one-third of Iowa counties are “broadband deserts,” where high-speed internet is rarely offered. Currently 18.5 percent of Iowans have access to affordable internet plans compared to the national average of 50.1 percent.

According to Broadbandnow, an organization collecting data on internet access nationwide, Iowa ranks 45th in accessible internet connectability. Iowa also has the second slowest internet speeds on average, only beating out Alaska.

Reynolds’ plan asks for a $450 million investment from the state, $150 million per year for three years, to achieve its goal of providing high speed internet access to underserved areas by 2025. The plan would provide grants to internet service providers bringing high-speed connections to target areas, and are required to provide broadband internet speeds of 100 megabits download and 100 megabits upload if they receive funding from the grant.

To address affordability, the plan seeks to identify state funding and public-private partnerships to subsidize broadband.

Senate File 390 establishes the foundation language of the plan, but the plan’s cost has yet to be confirmed.

Cahill said she supports legislation expanding internet access, but wants to keep a close eye on the plan’s cost.

“I’m fully supportive of having high quality broadband internet access across the state, but we will have to measure the cost of it,” Cahill said.

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Contact Trevor Babcock at 641-753-6611 or tbabcock@timesrepublican.com.

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