With the passage of the federal infrastructure bill, Internet service providers in Iowa are looking to cash in on the third major round of government funding for broadband in a year as details of the process remain uncertain.
At least $ 100 million of the $ 65 billion in money allocated by the federal government in November goes to Iowa. What this money can be spent on, however, is still pending.
President Joe Biden signed the Federal Infrastructure Bill on November 15, one of his top legislative priorities. The bill provided money for improving roads, broadband, improving water quality and a host of other initiatives. Of the Iowa Congressional delegation, Democratic Representative Cindy Axne and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley were the only ones voting for the bill.
Less than a month after the bill was signed, much remains unclear about the details of how the money will be allocated and the rules that will be applied to it, ISPs said. The bill requires that the subsidies be awarded on the basis of maps of the Federal Communications Commission described in the DATA law adopted in March 2020. A year and a half later, these maps have still not been drawn.
Chuck Deisbeck, CEO of South Slope in North Liberty, said the company is starting to assess whether the federal infrastructure bill can fit into its expansion plan. South Slope provides Internet access to the Johnson and Linn County areas.
Without the final map and full grant details, Deisbeck said South Slope is trying to determine, through consultations and other preliminary data, where they might be able to build using the money from the bill. ‘infrastructure.
“There’s a lot of information coming in, and we’re trying to decipher from consultant to consultant, where we think some of this mapping and some of this money might come from, so it’s a bit overloaded right now, ”says Deisbeck.
Current FCC maps that show where coverage is lacking are known to be inaccurate. To address this issue, Congress passed the DATA Act in 2020, which was co-sponsored by former Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa.
The maps required by the DATA Act will be more granular, with the ability to explore specific locations and homes that are not served by high-speed internet, said Dave Duncan, CEO of the Iowa Communications Alliance.
“We’ll have a much better view of which locations are served and which are not, so funding can be targeted to those unserved locations,” Duncan said.
Currently, state and federal maps are based on census blocks, small statistical areas that can hold between 600 and 3,000 people. If a house in a census block has broadband service, that block is considered served, even if the rest do not have access, Duncan said.
“No one who is a broadband provider has used census blocks to determine where to build or where their customer base is or whatever,” he said. “The federal authorities have just used it as a means of measuring. “
But these cards may still be a long way off. The FCC has found it difficult to accurately map millions of addresses and properties across the country, according to a September Government Accountability Office report. The providers have said they don’t expect the cards to be available until late spring or summer 2022, which means they likely won’t see the grants until next fall.
Along with the uncertainty of the map, specific stipulations for federal grants have yet to be worked out, Deisbeck said, which also makes planning more difficult. While the outline of the program is defined, the specific rules are not stated.
One requirement is that companies receiving grants provide “affordable” broadband, but Diesbeck said that has not been defined.
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“Who determines what is affordable? ” he said. “So we have to be very careful about what we would agree to, so these are the types of things that we are looking at.”
ISPs are used to having to bypass different rules and maps, Duncan said. Over the past two years, broadband grants have been awarded by the state, the federal government, and the US Department of Agriculture, all with different requirements.
“What happens is these vendors have hopefully done some basic research on what areas they would like to expand into, and then they’re hoping those areas match what the map shows as eligible.” Duncan said.
Scott Havel, general manager of Sharon Telephone Company in Washington County, said providers can make a general plan for where they might want to locate, but that will likely change once the map and rules are finalized. .
“You may need to remove some census blocks from the middle of where you plan to build,” he said.
Often times, vendors will build lines to these homes anyway using their own money, Havel said.
“This is kind of how we approached our grants:” Okay, this area is not eligible, but if I get this grant I will be a mile and a half from 20 houses, so I will go ahead and build on those on my own, ”he said.
Not all internet service providers are likely to be eligible for infrastructure bill payment. The program is designed to target underserved households in the country, prioritizing areas that do not have available speeds of 25 megabits download and 3 megabits download.
For municipal utilities that provide broadband, that level is already achieved in most cities, said Alex Cutchey, director of government affairs for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities.
“We eventually find out that many municipal utilities cannot take advantage of any of the broadband subsidies because there is at least one existing broadband telecommunications provider in the census tract that provides at least this minimum standard of 25 to. down, three up, “he said.
Even before the infrastructure bill, Internet service providers in Iowa last year enjoyed a windfall of government money to expand their networks and bridge the digital divide. The quest for broadband has been on the political agendas of both state-level political parties for years, and Governor Kim Reynolds made it a major political goal in the last legislative session.
According to a November report from broadnow.com, Iowa ranks 36th nationally on several Internet quality indicators. About 11 percent of the state’s residents do not have access to non-satellite broadband. In terms of average internet speed, the state ranks 48th with 144 megabits per second, with only California and Montana falling below.
While the push for rural broadband was around pre-2020, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for a reliable internet, Heart of Iowa Communications chief executive Bryan Amundson said.
“We have a lot of people who live in rural areas, and they work from home or have children who have homework to do,” he said. “In particular, the last few years of the pandemic simply show that broadband for rural people is just as important as it is for city dwellers. “
In May, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill allocating $ 100 million to rural broadband subsidies. Reynolds then led the federal $ 200 million American Rescue Plan to award grants to Internet service providers this fall, and applications for those grants were closed last month. Grants have also been awarded by the USDA and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
This makes them an exciting, but sometimes complicated, time to be in the business, Amundson said.
“It makes it a bit more difficult when you get to the application process to make sure you’re following the right ones,” he said. “You are not confusing your P and Q.”
No one is sure if the recent surge will be enough to get broadband to every corner of the state, but experts have agreed that Iowa will see a dramatic increase in coverage once the money disperses. Havel said he hopes the $ 65 billion in the bill will be enough to cover almost the entire country.
“With what’s in this bill, depending on how it’s allocated, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t cover most of the country,” he said. “I’m sure there are going to be outlying areas… but I think the funding that’s in this bill is going to do a lot to cover broadband for the whole country.”