(Des Moines) — Lawmakers in the Iowa Legislature have sent the framework to Governor Kim Reynolds for a large broadband expansion in the state.
The Senate this week approved HF848, which was approved by the House in late March. The bill sets up the rules for how state grant money can be awarded to companies for broadband projects, including a tiered system that gives higher reimbursement rates to companies working in underserved areas. Senator Carrie Koelker — a Republican from Dyersville — says an investment in broadband is desperately needed.
"One-third of our counties are broadband deserts," said Koelker. "We have the second-lowest broadband speed in the country and one-in-five Iowans lack the bandwidth required for video chats. We can do better than that. We're in Iowa. Broadband is no longer a luxury. It's critical for our infrastructure."
Lawmakers still do not have an agreement on a funding level for the program. Reynolds has asked for $150 million in each of the program’s first three years. Senator Janet Petersen — a Democrat from Des Moines — offered an amendment that would offer discounted internet prices to lower-income Iowans.
"If you apply for the millions and millions of dollars that I believe will be funneled through this program, if you receive money from the state taxpayer dollars, that you will also be required -- with guidelines put out by the department -- to have a program for low-income Iowans to be able to actually afford to get the broadband in their homes," said Petersen.
Petersen’s amendment was defeated, with Democrats voting for and Republicans against. Senator Joe Bolkcom — a Democrat from Iowa City — compared broadband expansion to putting electricity or phone service to Iowa homes. He says getting fiber optics laid is a good start, but it doesn’t mean anything if the product isn’t affordable.
"You can have broadband kind of by you, going by your house, but if you can't afford it, you don't have it," said Bolkcom. "This isn't just a problem in urban Iowa, it's a problem everywhere in Iowa. Affordability is as important as the line running to my house. If I can't afford it, it doesn't really matter if I can get the hook-up at my home."
Koelker says expanding broadband in Iowa will have a knock-on effect on the entire state.
"This is the type of policy that we need to be a pro-business state," said Koelker. "This is going to help both large and small businesses grow, increase accessible ability to education and ultimately further Iowa's position as a place for quality of life. That's what we're known for in Iowa; quality of life."
The bill now heads to Reynolds for her signature.