Governor Kim Reynolds is one step closer to getting the massive broadband expansion she asked Iowa lawmakers to fund.
Whether Iowans in underserved communities will be able to afford new high-speed internet is an open question, however.
Members of the Iowa House and Senate unanimously approved House File 848, which creates an Empower Rural Iowa broadband grant fund. The bill designates allowable speeds for downloading and uploading, providing larger matching grant amounts in areas that have less access to high-speed internet. The Office of Chief Information Officer will administer the grants and will have emergency rulemaking authority to get the program off the ground quickly.
Republican State Senator Carrie Koelker said during the April 6 Senate debate that the bill is needed because one-third of Iowa counties are "broadband deserts," our state has the second-lowest internet speeds in country, and one in five Iowans lack the bandwidth required for video chats.
Republican State Representative Ray Sorensen, who led House debate on the bill on March 29, made the case this way:
After some deliberation and compromise with the governor and the broadband bros, I think we can achieve our goal of connecting all Iowans, especially those stranded out in the broadband deserts. And not only with slow and outdated technology, but with download speeds aimed at not only catching Iowa up, but creating an economic growth driver for our great state.
We want to be able to conduct our Zoom meetings, connect to our doctors and nurses via telehealth, increase the connectivity of our tractors and combines for precision ag, or entertainment wise, to stream our favorite shows and movies, and unwind with a little Call of Duty or Madden [a football video game] on our PlayStation or Xbox, all while in our small towns or even out in our remote rural farms.
Although minimum download and upload speed for companies will generally be set at 100 megabits per second, the revised bill reduced the required upload speeds in some difficult to serve areas "to allow other technologies to compete," Sorensen explained. Speaking on the March 26 edition of "Iowa Press," House Speaker Pat Grassley explained the trade-off.
When the bill came from the Governor, we agree, we want world class speed. However, we also want to make sure that those areas where there's one house every four miles does it make sense for those local providers or the state to be investing the top dollar amount to just do that? How can we do it in a different way? So we've actually in our bill taken it instead of 100/100 taken it to 100 as far as the download speed and lowered the bottom number because some of these fixed wireless providers, I have one in fact it's just between our farm and where my grandfather grew up in between us is a fixed wireless tower where they're providing service to dozens of homes with one place where fiber has been run. So there's a way that we think we can do this to get world class speed as well as a quick rollout and hit some of those areas that are hard to reach.
House File 848 does not include any funding. Reynolds has asked lawmakers to commit $450 million over three years to the project. Grassley said on "Iowa Press" that House Republicans were prepared to spend $100 million from the general fund during the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
Another thing missing from the bill: any guarantee that internet service will be affordable for low-income Iowans.
Democratic State Senator Janet Petersen offered an amendment that would require OCIO to adopt rules to require companies receiving state grants to offer reduced rates for Iowa individuals or families with annual incomes of up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
Koelker opposed the amendment, saying reduced prices for low-income customers would be a "hidden tax on those that are currently paying for it." She also said the bill doesn't regulate internet service prices.
Speaking in support of Petersen's proposal, Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom pointed out that broadband deserts are a sign of a "market failure." Even in parts of his Iowa City district, there are neighborhoods with poor internet service. When the federal government invested in electrification and providing universal phone service decades ago, policies made sure the technology would be accessible to everyone. It's not much good if the fiber goes near your house but you can't afford to hook up, he added.
In closing remarks on her amendment, Petersen said Iowa lawmakers have required that recipients of some housing grants set money aside for affordable housing. Her proposal uses the same concept. The Biden administration wants to invest heavily in broadband expansion, which likely means millions of federal dollars will flow into the state once Congress approves an infrastructure bill. "We should be setting aside a portion of those dollars to go to help families be able to afford it," Petersen said. "Let's establish a program that works from the very beginning, not just to benefit out of state companies that are going to come in and build out our infrastructure, but also for Iowans who desperately need it."
Republicans voted down Petersen's amendment along party lines, the usual fate of any Democratic amendment to any bill brought to the House or Senate floor this year. All senators present then voted to send the bill to the governor.
One more thing: legislators repeatedly mentioned the importance of high-speed internet for delivering health care as the House and Senate discussed House File 848. State Representative Dave Williams, the lead Democrat on this legislation, mentioned on the House floor that telehealth had given him the flexibility to be at the capitol March 29. That morning he'd had a virtual appointment to follow up on some medical tests from the previous week. Koelker said on April 6 that "we all know" why Iowa needs high-speed internet: "we need to enrich education, we need world-class health care, we need improved public services and safety, and we need to be able to telework."
But fiber is only one part of the equation when it comes to making telehealth available to Iowans. Medical professionals won't offer those services remotely unless insurance companies reimburse fully for virtual appointments.
Reynolds declared in her Condition of the State speech, "telehealth is a powerful tool that we should continue to encourage and expand." In March, House members approved by 95 votes to 1 a bill requiring full reimbursement for mental health services provided by telehealth. But Iowa Senate Human Resources Committee chair Jeff Edler let House File 294 die without a subcommittee hearing. It was one of many bills his committee did not act on, despite appeals from numerous advocates and constituents, State Senator Liz Mathis (the ranking Democrat on the panel) noted last week.
Broadband or no broadband, if a provider won't see patients via computer link, barriers to access will remain for Iowans without transportation or those living outside major metro areas, where there are few mental health practitioners.
LATE UPDATE: Ron Placone discussed this bill in a video posted to his YouTube channel on April 9. He described Iowa's approach as "a bullshit bill" and "what we're trying to avoid." Instead of having "solid requirements" for internet providers, companies wanting to serve rural areas (with no high-speed internet already) "can just have a shittier product available."
Placone said this bill would give "big cable" a lot of money to go to areas they don't want to serve and allow them to price gouge consumers. He also expressed concern that it would make it harder for municipal broadband to sprout up in underserved areas.
LATER UPDATE: Reynolds signed the bill on April 28. The same day, the Iowa Senate debated a budget bill that included a $100 million appropriation to the Office of Chief Information Officer to fund this grant program. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls offered an amendment that would have created a commission to oversee the broadband grant program, and would have established a "clawback" provision to ensure that the state could get its money back if grant recipients did not deliver the internet speeds promised. Republican State Senator Dennis Guth prevented a vote on this amendment by asking for a ruling on germaneness. Senate President Jake Chapman ruled the amendment not germane.
Top image: Broadband cable and construction site, photo by ThomBal available via Shutterstock.