Farmers and others in rural Iowa have long known the need for a broadband build-out to help pro­vide robust and reliable high-speed internet service to everyone in the state. This year, that need has become crystal clear as America battles the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Rural Broadband Association, since the COVID-19 national emergency was declared back in March, broadband providers have seen a surge in usage, as rural Americans are downloading and up­loading data at significantly higher rates.

It’s not surprising. With schools closed all over the state, teachers and students needed reliable broadband service to keep up with academic work. Many rural Iowa companies have closed their workplaces this spring and need broadband to allow employees to work from home. Businesses need broadband to deliver to customers, healthcare providers need it to connect with patients, and just as important, families need broadband to stay in touch when birthday parties and Sunday dinners are not possible.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, along with colleagues Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, recently underscored that need in an  op-ed article.

“We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the digital divide that continues to plague our nation,” the lawmakers wrote. “Whether it’s to help our schools, businesses and healthcare providers operate remotely or making sure people stay connected, reliable broadband connectivity is as important as ever.” 

A bipartisan effort

Ernst and her colleagues have teamed up to support a bipartisan bill called the Keeping Critical Connections Act. 

It would create a program using existing, unobligated funds to create incentives for small broadband providers to deliver free or discounted broadband services or upgrades for low-income families struggling to pay their bills or who have a student in the household in need of distance-learning capability during COVID-19. 

“This will help our rural communities stay connected, as many of these small broadband providers serve our remote areas,” the senators wrote. 

Other proposed legislation in the House would address the rural-urban digital divide by creating funds to speed the build-out of broadband in rural areas.

USDA loans and grants 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has work­ed to solve the rural broadband program with loans and grants through its ReConnect program. 

Several grants have been ex­tended to broadband providers in Iowa, including a more than $500,000 grant to allow Breda Telephone Corp. to bring gigabit capable broadband service, fiber voice and digital TV services to more than 50 farms, businesses and rural households near Arcadia.

The need is so great that one large Iowa co-op, Landus Cooperative, is offering access to its Wi-Fi  for rural residents who have trouble accessing it at home. The service is being offered at 10 of the co-op’s locations in west central Iowa. 

“Broadband internet access during these times is critical for learning, access to health information and for connecting virtually with our family and friends,” Landus CEO Matt Carstens said.  “We are excited to share free Wi-Fi with our rural communities so all of our neighbors can access the digital resources they need and want. We know high speed, quality internet access is critical to the success of rural America, our farmer-owners and this cooperative.”

A Farm Bureau priority

Farm Bureau has long pushed for more reliable broadband ac­­ross Iowa and rural Americans.

Earlier this year, before the pandemic was on anyone’s rad­­ar, delegates at the American Bureau Farm Federation (AFBF) annual policy session adopted Iowa Farm Bureau Federation language for policies that better identify rural areas underserved by broadband providers and to prioritize those areas in programs designed to increase internet connectivity.

As AFBF president Zippy Duv­all recently wrote, the pandemic is making that need even clearer. “Now, the rubber is meeting the road, as they say, literally as rural families go out in search of broadband — just when we’re being asked to stay home to beat coronavirus.”