Empower Rural Iowa grant program has invested over $350M so far

By Lisa Rossi

More than 100,000 homes, schools and businesses across Iowa will now have access to broadband internet due to a grant program that is funneling hundreds of millions in funding toward this effort.

Rural Iowans say broadband will level the playing field when it comes to telework, online health care access and access to online schooling, all societal changes that happened after the COVID-19 pandemic and have become a part of everyday life.

“I think it’s just great — it gives people a lot of opportunities,” Eugene Meiners, chairman of the Carroll County Board of Supervisors, said of broadband expansion efforts.

Meiners, as well as other Iowans, said that residents are relocating back home to rural Iowa and working remotely for businesses in cities, and they need fast internet to do that.

“Here’s an example,” he said. “I know one couple — they live in Colorado right now — they are moving back to this area to be closer to her parents. They are building a new house and [will] work from that house and still have jobs in other places.”

Since 2018, the Office of the Chief Information Officer in the state of Iowa has coordinated the Empower Rural Iowa grant program to “accelerate broadband expansion in unserved and underserved locations across the state of Iowa,” said Gloria Van Rees, public information officer and legislative liaison.

Van Rees said through seven grant opportunities, $353,850,022 in state and federal funding was awarded, to bring broadband service to 109,126 homes, schools and businesses in Iowa. She said the total new broadband investment between public and private money is $791,203,995, with the completion of the seventh grant opportunity in 2026.

In grant applications, telephone companies and internet providers said they were seeking grant assistance because the expansion projects couldn’t proceed without it.

For example, in the Western Iowa Networks FTTP Construction project’s grant application for an Empower Rural Iowa grant, officials said it was “very difficult or even impossible” to make a business case for serving the proposed area without funding assistance, due to the “high cost per address in a more sparsely populated rural area.”

“Without state grant funding, this project would either need to be delayed, or the scope would need to be significantly reduced, or most if not all of the project would need to be placed on hold indefinitely or canceled,” officials wrote in the grant application.

In Fayette County, residents have “fairly good coverage,” with uncovered areas in “scattered rural pockets,” said Mallory Hanson, the Fayette County economic development and tourism director.

“These individuals are unable to work from home or are extremely restricted in doing so,” she said.

She said lack of reliable internet has been a “deterrent” to population growth in her area.

“Internet availability and child care availability have been some of the first questions asked when individuals are looking to purchase a home or rent,” she said.

And since the pandemic, she’s seen a “trend of individuals looking to move to rural areas and especially looking to “move back home” to northeast Iowa.

“Many of these individuals are or will become remote workers and are interested in high-speed connections to enable them to work from anywhere,” she said. “Expanded broadband will support that trend and the continuation of a move to rural areas.”

Janell Bradley, the board chair of the Fayette County supervisors, is among the Iowans affected by a lack of broadband.

“I’m a county supervisor,” Bradley said. “I do my work from home. I’m on the phone all day —  I’m embarrassed to sometimes ask people to call me on my landline. We are the rare people who have a landline because we can’t rely on cell reception.”

Bradley said she lives on a gravel road and has an “old satellite dish” for internet access that is “obsolete” and just “gets worse and worse.”

“I visit my oldest daughter in Madison,” she said. “It amazes me how fast the pages load. What we do have here is slow. If it storms, it goes out. It rains a little heavy, and we don’t have any internet.”

She added: “Broadband is the thing. That’s great, but we don’t have broadband.” She doesn’t believe she will get broadband in the most recent expansion.

She copes by driving in to the office for longer Zoom meetings or using her husband’s office to make phone calls.

”For the people who have gotten fiber, they are so excited,” she said. “On social media, they say, ‘We’ve got the fiber. It’s so great.’”

Bradley echoed beliefs that more people are relocating to rural Iowa and working remotely. However, “they are choosing areas where fiber is being laid,” she said.

She said lack of fiber could negatively affect students as well. This year, North Fayette Valley Community Schools used online instruction instead of snow days, she said, so they didn’t have to count them as absences.

“Of course that would be a disadvantage for students in low-lying areas. They’d have to go to friends’ houses or a library,” she said. “It’s a definite advantage for schools not to go into June.”

In rural areas, COVID was a “punch in the face,” because “there was the necessity that people had to go online — for work and for school. Before, it was optional,” said Mariah Nutt, office manager and interim executive director of the chamber and development council of Crawford County.

“COVID happened [and] it became a necessity,” she said. “After COVID, it has stuck around: Zoom meetings, online classes.”

Nutt said she lives in the county and has noticed that things have gotten a little better.

“We do now have internet that works and is fast enough, but it took a long time to get there,” she said.

She said she lives close to town, which is why she has access. “There are people who are not close to town that don’t have access,” she said.

She said being online has become more of a way of life post-COVID, including for education. Middle schools and high schools in her area offer online classes as an alternative way to attend school, she said.

Lisa Rossi is a freelance contributing writer for the Business Record.