- Associated Press - Sunday, January 25, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - As Gov. Terry Branstad prepares to introduce legislation aimed at expanding broadband Internet in Iowa, members of a committee tasked with giving him key recommendations for a bill say it’s a complex issue that they’re still sorting out.

Members of a broadband committee within the governor’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Advisory Council said they’re still deciding what the state’s overall goal should be with expanding high-speed Internet, also known as broadband. There are several factors to consider, including whether to focus on Iowa’s roughly 20,000 households with no broadband or increasing current broadband speeds in already-connected communities.

Part of the challenge is the shifting national definition on what constitutes high-speed Internet, said John Carver, superintendent of the Howard-Winneshiek Community School District in northeast Iowa and co-chair of the committee.

“We’re in the infancy of all this stuff,” he said.

The committee, which is scheduled to meet in early February to finalize its draft, doesn’t have a budget recommendation, said Carver.

That concerns committee member Dave Duncan, also CEO of Iowa Communications Alliance. He noted neighboring states like Nebraska and Minnesota have more defined broadband budgets and time tables. In Nebraska, state officials released a plan last year designed to bring faster broadband to more areas by 2020; a Minnesota law signed last year sets aside $20 million for broadband expansion.

“I’m hopeful that our broadband committee will come together with a recommendation of a goal something like what some of those other states are doing,” he said.

Carver said group members have different ideas.

“There will be a consensus on what goes forward, but I don’t know if it’ll be 100 percent supported by everybody,” he said.

Committee members say they will recommend a robust fiber-optic network - a system of cables best placed underground - because it’s the best option for a broadband infrastructure with room for higher speeds, said Sen. Steven Sodders, a Democrat from State Center who is also on the committee. He introduced legislation Friday aimed at general expansion plans for the state’s fiber-optic network.

Sodders’ bill is separate from Branstad’s work. He said his bill is aimed at getting the conversation going, but he expects to amend it once the governor’s bill is introduced.

Roughly 28 percent of Iowa residents have access to a fiber-optic network, according to 2013 data from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Sodders expects his proposal on fiber-optic network expansion to take at least three to four years to accomplish.

About 80 percent of Iowa households - roughly 985,000 - have high-speed Internet with download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 1.5 megabits per second, according to Connect Iowa, an organization with federal support that is working with communities across the state to expand service.

Those speeds roughly translate to the ability of a household to do several things online before speeds begin to slow.

The FCC currently defines broadband as lower download speeds of 4 megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 megabit per second. In the age of video streaming and constant smartphones use, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is set to propose a new threshold Thursday for download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second.

The numbers are not a mandate for states, said FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield, but he added it’s what broadband “is going to need to be, to be adequate for the uses. It’s a little bit forward looking.”

Branstad has set aside $5 million for broadband expansion in his budget proposal. He is weighing different factors before recommending more money for future budgets, according to his spokesman.

Duncan said any state funds will be helpful to service providers as they seek to offset the high costs of bringing broadband to rural areas of Iowa. The industry currently relies on federal subsidy dollars and grants. At least $130 million in federal subsidies was given in 2013 to service providers in Iowa through a fund that offers broadband and phone services support, according to data from the FCC.


Follow Barbara Rodriguez on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bcrodriguez

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