When considering Iowa, what comes to mind? Open fields? Livestock? High-quality Internet access? According to the FCC, if you live in Iowa, your broadband problems are over. Of course, as ILSR Research Associate Katie Kienbaum points out in her recent piece in the Des Moines Register, the reality in the Hawkeye State is quite different than the FCC’s flawed stats report. The reason is the FCC’s infatuation with satellite Internet access — a view that has some real consequences for Iowa and its people. Read the piece in its entirety here or at the Des Moines Register:
FCC says satellite connectivity is good enough for rural Iowans. It’s not.
Everyone in Iowa has access to broadband, according to the federal government. In fact, two-thirds of Iowans can supposedly subscribe to at least three different broadband providers.
You should be. The hundreds of thousands of rural Iowans who struggle to get good connectivity are.
The sizable disconnect between federal statistics and reality is a result of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) classifying satellite Internet access as high-speed broadband. Since every census block in Iowa has access to satellite connectivity, everyone is officially considered served.
However, by accepting satellite Internet access as “good enough,” the federal government is dooming rural Iowans to second-rate connectivity, effectively shutting them out of the modern economy.
Anyone stuck with Internet access from a satellite provider will tell you that it’s not true broadband. Speeds are much slower than cable or fiber, and high latency, or signal transmission time, makes it practically impossible to use for video or phone calls. On rainy days, you might not get service at all. This poor quality isn’t even reflected in the price. Satellite providers often charge more than other types of Internet access providers, while forcing subscribers to decipher complicated data plans and sign on to long contracts.
If we exclude expensive and unreliable satellite Internet access from the data, Iowa actually has much worse connectivity than the federal government claims. More than 10 percent of the population (approximately 360,000 people) doesn’t have access to broadband, which the FCC defines as a minimum of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Another 40 percent of the population (more than 1 million people) only has access through a single monopoly provider.
In more than 10 years of working with communities to improve Internet access, we have never found a household that chooses satellite when they have a wired option for broadband. But the FCC wants to claim that the 1 million Iowans who have a cable monopoly and one or two satellite options live in a thriving market. This is statistical malpractice.
Labeling all of Iowa as "served" means the state may not receive further federal funding to invest in its broadband infrastructure. Rural Iowans will be stranded with satellite connectivity, while federal funds go instead to places that have less satellite coverage. For example, Missouri recently collected more than $25 million in the FCC’s Connect America Fund II reverse auction — five times as much as Iowa did.
While satellite Internet access is better than no Internet access at all, it isn’t enough to recognize the full economic benefits of high-speed broadband. Rural communities need high-quality connectivity for online education, telemedicine, precision agriculture, and more, but satellite connectivity can’t provide the speed or reliability those applications require.
Some Iowa communities are taking their connectivity — and their economic future — into their own hands. Small towns, like Spencer and Waverly, and cooperatives, like Maquoketa Valley Electric, are building fiber networks that can deliver gigabits to local businesses and residents. This is the broadband that rural Iowa needs.
Internet via satellite may be an essential bridge technology while these networks are being built, but it cannot replace wireline connectivity. The federal government should not deny funding to high-quality networks in rural areas just because satellite happens to be marketed there.