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Federal broadband aid adds to Iowa’s expansion;

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ANKENY — An influx of federal funding for high-speed internet expansion has created an opportunity in Iowa that must be met, agriculture and business leaders in Iowa said Wednesday during a roundtable discussion with a representative from the federal commerce department.

Andrew Berke, the special representative for broadband with the federal commerce department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, participated in the discussion at Des Moines Area Community College.

Iowa’s discussion was the 21st such event in as many states that he has participated in, he said, as states prepare for how to spend $42 billion from the bipartisan federal infrastructure funding law to expand high-speed, broadband internet access to underserved areas. Just how much of that federal money Iowa will receive has yet to be determined.

For Wednesday’s discussion, 17 people representing Iowa communications providers, utilities and agricultural interests participated.

“It’s a great opportunity, but man, we can’t waste this,” said Chuck Deisbeck, the chief executive officer of South Slope, a communications co-op based in North Liberty.

During the roughly 90-minute discussion, Berke heard from the Iowa stakeholders about the need to ensure that any internet expansion is both truly high-speed and affordable; that the federal regulations be streamlined; that deployment happens as quickly as possible to meet the needs of farmers and residents of rural communities; and that the program should not only establish new infrastructure but also provide for maintaining it over the long-term.

“I’ve been working on this issue for a long time. To see it come to a national level where the President (Joe Biden) has put his emphasis here is an amazing opportunity for everybody,” Berke said after the roundtable. “We’ve set an incredibly ambitious goal to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, reliable high speed internet. Just setting that goal is a huge step forward because we’ve never done that before. And defining it as infrastructure means that each Iowan is going to have access to it. And now our responsibility is to get that done in the most effective and efficient way possible.”

Rural high-speed internet in Iowa long has been a priority for politicians on both sides of the aisle. Farmers need fast and reliable internet for precision agriculture, and more recently the need became even more pronounced during the pandemic as school kids switched to online instruction, people turned to telehealth to see their doctors and more employees worked from home.

Yet Iowa came in 43rd among the 50 states in average internet speed, according an 2021 article from Swaths of the state have poor service or no access.

In January 2021, Gov. Kim Reynolds called on state lawmakers to approve $450 million over three years for statewide broadband. She and legislators later settled on $100 million instead.

Still, the $100 million represented the largest pot of state money for Iowa’s broadband infrastructure to date. The 2021 bill was the sixth time Iowa has provided public funds for rural broadband expansion.

Berke said a formula has been established to determine how much each state will receive from the federal aid, based on each state’s needs to expand broadband internet access to underserved areas.

He said once states are awarded their share of the funding, they will have nine months to create a federally-approved plan and up to four years to complete the expansion projects.


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