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Lawmakers debate aspects of broadband

BY AARON WALKER | JANUARY 30, 2015 5:00 AM

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The rolling knolls and crop-covered flatland of rural Iowa are connected through fiber networks and cell towers, but a clear divide is apparent between Iowa’s lawmakers on how best to expand connectivity.

“The governor wants to get [access] to every acre, and I want to get [access] to every kid,” said Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center. “My bill this year focuses on getting fiber to every home we can get it to.”

Sodders introduced the year’s first bill related to increasing broadband access in rural areas. But his bill lays out a different plan than the one envisioned by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

The governor’s “Connect Every Acre” proposal, along with community fiber networks, asks for mobile broadband access outside of towns. Many expect his bill to include incentives for companies to build more cell towers throughout fields to allow farmers to access information from machinery wirelessly.

The Senate bill does not include information on tax incentives, which he called a “controversial” part of last year’s failed bill.

“I’m sure there will be things in the governor’s bill that we need to add or vice versa,” Sodders said. “[We’re] looking for a reasonable compromise.”

Despite garnering bipartisan support, issues pertaining to the legislation and its popular support still exist.

“If you happen to be in an area that has broadband that is fast enough and has capability to have speeds you’re comfortable with, they’re not so apt to have the state take some of their tax money to send other places,” said Rep. Thomas Sands, R-Wapello.

On the business side, some Democrats fear legislation relating to cell towers will favor certain providers.

Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, said legislators must perform due diligence in making certain connectivity is accessible on an equal basis.

“It think that we must also be sure that when we pursue legislation, we are opening it to all markets, not favoring one or two manufacturers or providers,” Hanson said.

Nearly all new equipment from John Deere, which has supported the governor’s plan, comes off the assembly line with AT&T wireless modems installed.

“We are working on a new technology that would allow us to take advantage of anyone’s cell-phone signal, not just AT&T,” said Mark Lewellen, the manager of spectrum advocacy at John Deere. “We just want to see more cell towers.”

But as the legislation approaches, the company has no timeline for the technology’s availability.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the “Connect Every Acre” proposal would allow any provider to apply for grants that would be reviewed by a board housed in the office of the chief information officer.

The wireless modems on self-propelled farm equipment reduce idle time and transfer data pertaining to crop yields and technical specifications.

Ben Bader, a farmer located south of Jesup, Iowa, said he uses Jesup’s local provider at home and his US Cellular plan for wireless.  The provider, Farmers Mutual Telephone Co., is a US Cellular authorized agent.

“From our end, as any business, you know everything runs on the Internet; time is money, and connectivity speeds are very important,” Bader said.  “Online banking and all of our yield records get pushed up to the cloud and get connected to different monitors.”

Tiffin-area farmer Steve Swenka still transfers data from his machinery using flash drives.

“I never really thought about [wireless data collection]; it certainly wouldn’t hurt,” he said.

“Naturally, it would help improve some efficiency and take a few steps out of the equation."

Gary Menke, the city administrator of West Point, a town of just under 1,000, said the people in his town welcome all providers and types of Internet.

“We don’t put any restrictions on whoever’s available here, so I guess there’d be nothing wrong with the opportunity,” he said. “My two cents is, I think the farmers would enjoy that, too; it’d be helpful.”


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