MT. PLEASANT — Access to broadband internet was the focus of a recent forum hosted by the Henry County Democrats at Iowa Wesleyan’s Chadwick Library.
A panel of speakers, including a representative from Microsoft, spoke Sunday evening to discuss the current state of widespread broadband internet accessibility in rural Iowa and potential changes that may be coming in the future to improve access.
Dave Helman, a local southeast Iowa resident kicked off the panel by outlining some of the challenges he has faced living on “the last gravel road” on the border of Henry and Lee County.
“In today’s world, we have to be able to have the same services, or roughly equivalent services who are in the urban areas if we’re going to prosper, grow and do our job,” Helman added.
The Henry County resident homed in on several key issues including the growing use of technology in agriculture, as well as rural businesses and their use of the internet to reach different markets of people. Helman stressed that high-speed internet is needed to stay competitive with other businesses and industries. Helman also pointed out the importance of access for schools, explaining that 50.3 percent of Iowan schools are in rural areas. As schools continue to introduce technology into the classroom, the importance of access to internet for the purpose of education also grows.
Following Helman, Mike Schil, the president of NATAL Broadband internet, a service provider based in Fairfield, outlined the challenges he faced in being able to provide internet access to people in rural areas. For Schil, funding programs geared toward smaller companies like his would allow companies to more easily expand access to rural Americans.
“We’ve always felt like there’s a lot of lip service paid to broadband but when it comes to helping companies like us that are out there doing it, not much of it has reached us,” Schil explained.
“With existing governmental funding programs, the administrative burden not only applying for it but over time, administering the funding as it comes in is huge so you really need to have the resources available to support that,” Schil continued.
Schil expressed frustration in the limitations he faces, especially when attempting to reach customers living in wooded areas or other places that are difficult for internet service to reach. Schil’s discussion of available technology lead the way for Paula Boyd’s introduction of Microsoft’s new Airband initiative. Boyd, a senior director for Microsoft, explained that the company’s intention with the program is to partner with local businesses in rural areas to expand broadband access.
“We … see the challenges communities will have if they’re not connected, because we see what that connectivity does with respect to businesses and opportunities,” Boyd said.
“We have committed with respect to the U.S. to work with … providers to provide coverage to 3 million Americans by July 2022,” Boyd explained. The senior director explained that it expects to help local companies use a range of different technologies to provide service to rural Americans, including TV white space, which could potentially provide access through older technology like television antennas.
Other panelists included State Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant), who gave an overview of what is happening at a state level in terms of funding for broadband access, and John Russell, the Iowa Rural Political Coordinator for presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who addressed what the candidate hopes to do to improve access on a national level.
Sen. Taylor noted that most recently, Gov. Kim Reynolds acquired 5 million dollars from state legislators to release over a two-year period to help increase access to broadband access but that the money was “not tied to anything.” The funding was released just three weeks ago but the senator had been unable to get a clear answer from the governor’s office about how the funding is being handled.
“$5 million is a drop in the buck compared to what we should be doing,” Taylor lamented.
The state senator mostly encouraged rural residents to lobby representatives who are in committees involved with broadband access in order to make elected officials aware of how important the issue is.
Russell outlined Warren’s plan to model Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act, which would allocate 85 billion dollars in capital eligible via grants, that would help smaller telecommunication companies, based in rural areas, to provide better service to all residents.