In January, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivered her Condition of the State address and called for a major capital investment to expand access to broadband technology across the state. The governor reiterated this policy objective on a recent video conference call with the membership of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce.
Truth be told, this is not a new request or area of emphasis for Iowa’s chief executive. Early in her gubernatorial tenure, she requested $20 million for enhanced broadband access and in June of 2019, in this very newspaper, the governor wrote:
"Today, technology drives every aspect of our lives. Farmers use technology to increase yields on smaller footprints, maximize conservation practices and reimagine animal care practices. Business owners, entrepreneurs, startups, and manufacturers leverage technology to transform their operations. Teachers and their students connect to new concepts and interact with experts via online learning…All of these things reinforce why Iowa must have the best high-speed broadband infrastructure in order to compete in a disruptive digital economy and ensure our well-being."
While the governor was undoubtedly on the right track in 2019, she is asking for substantially more in 2021. Reynolds has stated she is done with modest, incremental change and will be pursuing a big, bold broadband initiative with the potential to have a substantial and lasting impact on both the rural and urban Iowa landscape. In last month’s speech she stated:
"I’m done taking small steps and hoping for big change. This is the time for bold action and leadership. Let’s plant a stake in the ground and declare that every part of Iowa will have affordable, high-speed broadband by 2025. We’ll get there by committing $450 million over that time period, which will leverage millions more in private investment, giving Iowa the biggest buildout of high-speed internet in the country."
As the executive branch funding request climbed from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, one might reasonably ask, “What changed?” For starters, COVID-19 pulled the curtain back and revealed that much of our state, not just the wide-open spaces in rural Iowa, but also neighborhoods in many of our most populous metros, lacked the kind of broadband access that was necessary to adequately support our K-12 students and teachers. When the pandemic forced schools to close and implement remote learning programs, it quickly became apparent that much of our high-speed broadband infrastructure was inadequate. Additionally, although “tele-health” has been growing steadily for years, the practice of this type of medicine surged in the wake of the coronavirus.
“As we’ve learned during the pandemic, high speed internet is as vital to our communities as running water and electricity. If they don’t have it, they can’t grow,” Reynolds said.
Furthermore, when employers offered employees the opportunity to work from home and initiated remote office programs, we discovered that many areas lacked the technology infrastructure necessary for people to work productively from their residences. While many were able to successfully make the transition to remote learning and employment, a considerable number were not as a direct result of inaccessibility issues.
To this end, earlier this month, the Governor’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board released its final report which includes:
"Building out broadband will support growth and progress in Iowa’s high-tech jobs, manufacturing, precision agriculture, education system, and local economies. The Connectivity Working Group’s recommendation to provide universal broadband access ranked only behind child care as the most important priority of the Advisory Board."
Concurrent with the release of the report, Iowa’s Chief Information Officer, Annette Dunn, explained that Iowa currently stands 49th out of the 50 states for broadband speed, with only Alaska ranking lower and slower. Iowa can and must do better. Not only do our children, teachers, and parents deserve access to state-of-the-art broadband for education, our small business owners, farmers, and health care providers, as well as employees and employers, must also be able to take advantage of an impressive array of digital tools and technology to keep our economy competitive and growing.
Although Washington, DC appears to be as politically polarized as ever, that is not necessarily the case in Des Moines. While Iowa’s state legislature has its well-established political divisions – democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, urban and rural – when pursuing broadband programs that promise positive results for education, healthcare, agriculture, employment, and economic development, Iowa’s citizens have every reason to expect that our elected officials will find a bi-partisan path to progress.