As Iowa Spends $100 Million On High-Speed Internet Expansion, Mapping Challenges Remain
After a year when many Iowans were on the internet more than ever, state lawmakers are putting more money than ever before—$100 million—into expanding access to high-speed internet. To help decide where to spend it, the state updated its broadband map that highlights which areas have the least access to high-speed internet. Some Iowans are asking the state to designate their neighborhoods as underserved so they don’t miss out on the chance to have better internet access.
Jerry Bossard is one of them. He lives near Granger, about 20 miles northwest of Des Moines.
“We moved there about ten years ago,” Bossard said. “And I’ve tried wireless hotspots, I’ve tried satellite. I’ve tried CenturyLink DSL, and it just didn’t work.”
He now has internet that works well from Minburn Communications. But it’s not ideal for him and his wife. They both work from home and experience delays when working across a VPN.
Their download speed of 15 megabits per second (Mbps) is lower than the 25 Mbps that the Federal Communications Commission considers to be the minimum for adequate broadband service. But that’s not what Iowa’s latest broadband map shows, so Bossard’s neighborhood isn’t eligible for state grants that would help boost download and upload speeds to 100 megabits per second.
“If we had fiber, things would just be faster for her to work from home and for me to work from home,” Bossard said. “And that’s really what would benefit our area.”
Bossard filed a map challenge with the state and has encouraged others to do the same, in the hope that the state will recognize his neighborhood as needing better internet access.
More than 100 map appeals were filed this summer by individual Iowans, and more than 40 were filed by broadband providers. The Iowa Office of the Chief Information Officer is in the process of reviewing them.
Minburn Communications—which provides phone and internet services to Minburn, Woodward, Perry and surrounding areas—filed two map appeals. The company also held community outreach events this summer to encourage residents to submit their internet speed information to the state and strengthen their case for getting a broadband grant.
“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of requests from customers that either live just on the fringe or in communities asking them to come and serve them,” said Debra Lucht, CEO and general manager of Minburn Communications. “But there’s such a high cost associated with taking fiber that it’s never been able to pencil out the number of customers we’re serving compared to the cost that it takes to get there.”
Lucht said that’s why the state broadband grants are critical, and she is proud of state leaders for putting $100 million into the program this year.
But she said the mapping process is the main barrier for Minburn Communications to access that money. Because if one customer in a given census block has internet with a certain minimum speed, that whole census block is considered adequately served and therefore unable to qualify for grants.
“If we can get more address-specific in who has it and who doesn’t have it, I think that’s what opens up the door to apply for more funds,” Lucht said. “If they try to stay to the current mapping, and we don’t have the ability to challenge that mapping, then the funding is not going to be able to be used.”
Tim Eklund is the CFO of Farmers Mutual Telephone Company, which provides internet in four counties in southwest Iowa. His company applied for a broadband grant for a $6 million project that would expand service to 400 to 500 households in rural areas.
“The need and want for broadband is not new,” Eklund said. “We get calls from potential subscribers wondering when FMTC is going to expand in their area.”
Eklund said even though the company doesn’t need to challenge the state broadband map for their current grant proposal, FMTC may do so in the future to try to get towns such as Red Oak and Clarinda to qualify for broadband expansion grants.
“We’re trying to understand the disconnect between what subscribers are saying to us when they say, ‘We need faster broadband,’ and when the current providers in those areas are saying…they have 80 [Mbps] down[load speed] or better,” Eklund said. “So there’s a disconnect there, somehow.”
Iowa Deputy Chief Information Officer Matt Behrens said the state gets “a lot” of appeals every time the broadband map is updated. This year, a little more than 2 percent of the state’s census blocks are being challenged, and Behrens said that’s a “reasonable” amount.
He said federal and state agencies are working to get more specific in their mapping.
“Hopefully you’ll begin to see some of that emerge into our mapping data, but again, as those datasets become available,” Behrens said. “So it’s a journey to make the map as good as it can be, but we’re definitely working every day to try to gather as much information as we can and do our best to represent the conditions of broadband on the ground.”
Behrens said the state plans to announce grant recipients in September.
Broadband providers requested $292 million for expansion projects—nearly three times the amount allocated by the Iowa Legislature.
“Build it and they will come,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a recent news release. “The nearly 200 applications as well as the size and scope of these projects reflect the demand and need for quality accessible broadband throughout Iowa.”
She has said she wants to also use federal funding sources—including the American Rescue Plan and potential infrastructure funding—to help meet Iowa’s demand for high-speed internet access.
Reynolds proposed putting $150 million this year and in each of the next two years toward state broadband grants. The Iowa Legislature provided $100 million for this year, and it’s not clear how much will be spent in the next two years.