USDA Broadband

DES MOINES — The COVID-19 pandemic that is forcing employees to work from home and school children to seek online instruction is shining a bright light on Iowa’s broadband challenges and possibly spurring some accelerated action to address it.

State legislators already were moving bills to help finance incremental broadband expansion in underserved and unserved areas — especially in rural Iowa — and to make other improvements. But because of efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, legislators suspended their 2020 session until April.

Sponsors of the bills say it’s unclear whether they’ll bump up the current effort when they are able to reconvene. But they expect that the “new normal” on the other side of the global pandemic could create momentum to bring internet statewide, much like the electrification of Iowa in the 1930s through rural electric cooperatives.

“I think that after we’re all said and done with this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Legislature and Congress devote far more resources to get everyone connected because they really now see the importance,” said Dave Duncan of the Iowa Communications Alliance.

“Yes, it was a hot topic already this legislative session; yes, it was a hot topic in Congress already for the last year or two or three,” added Duncan, whose association has 116 rural communications companies serving about 320 communities. “But now it just takes it to almost a top primary concern of most policymakers.”

The issue already is top of mind for state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Ottumwa Republican whose home is located at the city-county line where she said her internet service is sketchy at best.

“I only have satellite or Wi-Fi and it’s variable,” said Miller-Meeks. “Like today when it’s overcast, I may get television, I may get internet, or I may not.”

She said trying to download information can take a long time and she’s not the only Iowan spending frustrating and tedious stints parked on the side of the digital superhighway.

“I know already that I’ve experienced slow internet speeds in Des Moines because of the dramatic increase in the number of people who are teleworking, so in an area that perhaps is not served by as many and as strong of networks as we are in a bigger city, that’s probably even worse,” said Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

State Sen. Waylon Brown, R-St. Ansgar, said much of the immediate focus now is dealing with halting and mitigating the COVID-19 spread, addressing the needs of businesses being forced to scale back or close and the crush of workers losing their jobs and other urgent needs.

But, he said, the newfound reliance on and immediate societal shift to online- based work activities, food ordering and delivery, educational instruction, medical communications and myriad other basic functions is framing the issue in a new context.

“What we were working on was intended to speed up the process and to make sure that more people had broadband, and this is going to bring a whole other layer into that conversation. It is going to bring the focus in as to the importance of making sure that all parts of Iowa are connected with broadband,” Brown said.

“It is definitely showing us where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are and I think there’s going to be a new focus on those issues like broadband to make sure everybody is connected. And the question is going to come. ‘How do we get there in a quicker pace than what we’re already working out?’” he added. “It’s going to be one of the many challenges that we have to deal with.”