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Iowa tries again to narrow rural/urban divide in broadband access

by Laura Tomaka ~ February 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Across the nation, policymakers are looking at ways to enhance broadband connectivity in order to be economically competitive. This year, Iowa lawmakers will take a second look at a proposal to increase broadband access and close the digital divide between rural and urban areas in the state.
Last year, Iowa legislators defeated Gov. Terry Branstad’s plan to expand broadband availability across the state. This year, the governor is again asking lawmakers to support his proposal. According to Sen. Steve Sodders, who serves as the chair of the Commerce Committee and vice chair of the Economic Growth Committee, access to broadband varies significantly across the state.
“Living without high-speed access is, in many ways, like being a second-class citizen,” he says. “You face significant barriers that [those] who have broadband don’t face.”
The 2014 plan, Connect Every Iowan, had wide legislative support, but in the end lawmakers could not agree on its proposed tax breaks for telecommunication companies. The bill would have offered tax breaks for new broadband infrastructure and allowed private firms to lease bandwidth from the state in order to extend fiber-optic lines to rural customers.
Last year’s bill also faced unresolved questions about whether the most underserved areas would be reached by broadband. In addition to potential revenue losses resulting from tax breaks, local governments raised concern over cell tower siting changes.
According to Sodders, the requirement for uniform cell tower siting reforms was among the most controversial provisions. Opponents argued that the measure would circumvent local city and county control.
The governor’s new proposal — renamed Connect Every Acre — is an eight-point plan focused on increasing statewide broadband availability. Branstad says that under his plan, Iowa would lead the Midwest in broadband access.
Sodders has also introduced a bill (SF 60) that removes some of the more controversial points. He says these should be part of a separate bill and discussion. According to the state, two-thirds of rural households in Iowa subscribe to broadband service, compared to the average of 75 percent for Iowans in cities and suburbs. For mobile broadband, rural and urban subscriber rates are 40 percent and 53 percent respectively.
The main reason for this divide is that it costs more to build infrastructure in sparsely populated rural areas than in cities. According to the Iowa Communications Alliance, the difference can reach $3,000 to $5,000 per household.
However, in states where economies are heavily reliant on agriculture, being well-wired and having access to high-speed Internet are integral to keeping farm communities competitive and economically viable. A primary focus in Connect Every Acre is to ensure that farmers have mobile broadband access in fields where they run increasingly high-tech machinery.
The proposal directs the state’s chief information officer to coordinate statewide broadband availability between the public and private sector; includes a 100 percent property tax exemption for broadband infrastructure in place on or after July 1, 2014; and streamlines issuance of permits related to non-wireless broadband.
Sodders is optimistic that something will pass this year. “I think that the Senate, the House and the governor will be able to work together in good faith to pass some bill which increases broadband access in Iowa,” he says.

 

Article written by Laura Tomaka, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Economic Development Committee.