Q: How has COVID-19 intensified the need to bridge the digital divide in rural America?
A: There’s no question the pandemic has lent even greater urgency for expanded access to affordable, reliable and comprehensive high-speed internet services for communities across Iowa. As households adjust to distance learning, remote working and telehealth medical visits, spotty or non-existent access to broadband technology put many Iowans at a disadvantage. It also underscores the need to close the digital disparity from one neighborhood to the next. Home-based businesses, hybrid learning and home-bound families are testing the limits of internet services for schools, employers and households across the state. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 5 to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) of broadband download speed is needed to complete basic school or telework assignments. That benchmark increases if multiple users in a household are trying to stream, download and upload work at the same time. During my county meetings and communications with my office, Iowans have shared challenges they encounter accessing a provider, getting reliable service and obtaining affordable coverage. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I secured coverage for expanded access to telehealth services during the pandemic. Patients and providers have reported telehealth services are an effective and convenient way to deliver and receive care. I’ve also worked to expand televisits for residents in skilled nursing facilities. Many residents were isolated from family and friends for months on end due to mitigation efforts to stop the spread of the virus. Expanding access to video telecommunication services would provide immeasurable peace of mind to families and comfort to residents who are isolated during the pandemic and for those who live far away from their loved ones notwithstanding the public health emergency.
The pandemic has accelerated efforts in Congress to help close the gap and address immediate needs for distance learning, telehealth and hybrid work arrangements. Many Iowa communities have used the USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant program to expand access to broadband in rural areas. Iowa Specialty Hospital in Clarion recently was awarded a grant to purchase telemedicine equipment to connect health care providers in six Iowa counties. These services will directly benefit patients by bringing the care closer to home and reducing travel burden on patients and their families.
It’s important to bridge the digital divide that leaves five percent of the U.S. population behind. Connecting unserved communities with broadband is vital to foster economic development and productivity, improve better work-life balance, boost workforce recruitment and expand opportunities across the board for entrepreneurism, commercial enterprise, education and entertainment.
Q: What steps did Congress take this year to improve rural broadband?
A: In March, Congress passed four comprehensive coronavirus relief bills that included financial lifelines for individuals, forgiveable loans for small businesses, money for schools and health care providers and funds for accelerated vaccine development. The largest one, the CARES Act, also distributed billions of dollars to states. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Iowa would use $50 million from this pot of money to enhance broadband services across the state and an additional $26.2 million for expanding internet services to schools and higher education. The CARES Act also appropriated $375 million in emergency spending to help Americans access broadband services. Specifically, Congress directed $200 million to the FCC to assist telehealth services in rural areas; $125 million to the Rural Utilities Services for its broadband deployment pilot program and telehealth and distance learning program; and $50 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand digital networks, purchase internet-accessible devices and provide technical support.
What’s more, Sen. Joni Ernst and I are working to ensure every neighborhood is properly assessed for internet coverage. Providers use FCC coverage maps to determine where to deploy broadband services and build out infrastructure for high-speed networks in unserved and under-served neighborhoods. Incorrect data leave households and farms off the grid. Emerging wireless technology is another asset to explore to reach remote consumers. President Trump in March signed into law the Broadband DATA Act that requires the FCC to improve its data collection to determine what’s really available for both fixed and mobile broadband services. An accurate map will better inform providers where the gaps are and guide policymakers who distribute grants to help plug those gaps. The USDA administers federal programs to boost broadband in Rural America, such as the Community Connect Grants, and the ReConnect Program. Since the ReConnect Program launched in 2018, seven Iowa companies have applied and received over $46 million in funding to build out rural broadband and fiber-optic technology in unserved communities across the state, including a recent $5.4 million award that will connect nearly 2,000 people, 147 farms and 26 businesses to high-speed broadband internet services in Iowa and Johnson counties.