Q&A: Rural Broadband With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Q: What progress has been made to narrow the digital divide in America?
A: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 put in place a framework to ensure all Americans would have universal access to advanced telecommunications. It tasked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to implement reforms needed to make it happen in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” The 1996 law requires the federal agency to issue an annual report on progress underway to deploy broadband to all Americans. If sufficient progress is not made, the FCC is directed to accelerate efforts to improve competition and remove regulatory and investment barriers to reach underserved areas. Broadband capability allows users to “originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video” services. For tens of millions of Americans, high-speed internet access, mobile broadband and next-generation technologies are taken for granted. That’s not the case in underserved communities. Closing this digital disparity has broad implications in our global information economy. In addition to economic development and job creation, the digital divide affects social connectivity, entrepreneurship, education, access to information and emergency services, telemedicine, civic infrastructure and more. As Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator, I’m working to make sure rural residents are not left behind. No matter one’s zip code, Americans who live, work, attend school or retire in rural areas deserve the full promise of our American way of life. In the 21st century, that means all Americans ought to be able to share in the opportunity that advanced telecommunications and mobile technology can bring to one’s home, classroom, hospital, business, or tractor.
Although progress has been made in the last two decades, a digital gap still exists. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, about two-thirds of rural Americans say they have broadband internet connection at home. The survey still counted a 12 percentage point digital gap in home broadband connectivity between rural residents and everyone else. More tellingly, access to high-speed internet access poses a troubling barrier for one-quarter of rural Americans, according to the survey. If broadband deployment is failing to keep pace with what the market is offering and what consumers are demanding, that’s a problem. The FCC broadband benchmark is 25 megabits/per second. In its most recent broadband deployment report, the FCC said more than 21 million Americans lacked access to this benchmark connection.
Q: What concerns do you have about the FCC’s report on broadband access in Iowa?
A: One of the ways I keep tabs on the public pulse is holding meetings in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, at least once every year. Across the supply chain, from manufacturing to energy, retail and trucking industries, to small business people, educators, students, farmers, hospital administrators and civic leaders, access to reliable broadband is a concern that frequently comes up in my Q and As with Iowans. Access to broadband services impacts the ability of Iowans to grow their businesses, recruit and retain workers, take online classes, provide services and compete in the 21st century economy. So when the FCC says three out of four rural Iowans have access to broadband, I have to wonder if the FCC confused Pocahontas County with Polk County. Senator Ernst and I wrote to the FCC chairman to set the record straight. We have asked the FCC to improve the data used for its broadband maps. Currently, it bases its information on data received from providers. The data received is often based on entire census blocks and is unvalidated. The snapshot does not accurately reflect what’s available in these communities and drastically overstates the availability of broadband in Iowa. Remarkably, the FCC claims 90 percent of all Iowans have access to broadband. That’s 100 percent inaccurate and exposes a big disconnect between the FCC maps and reality. For example, the FCC says Chickasaw County has universal broadband access. However, user data available from technology companies indicate only six percent of residents in Chickasaw County has access to broadband. Senator Ernst and I will continue working to ensure accurate maps are used to inform FCC decisions. It’s essential to improve these maps so public and private partners use accurate and reliable data when making investment decisions. When leveraging public resources, good fiscal stewardship also demands validated data are used to ensure adequate financing is available to help bridge the digital divide in Rural America.