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Iowa’s governor asks task force to study how to boost broadband access

(Radio Iowa) – The governor has launched a “Connect Every Iowan” effort to expand broadband access in Iowa. Governor Branstad likens the effort to the push to get electricity to every home and farmstead in rural Iowa.

“This is electricity of the future,” Branstad says. “This is going to be critically important to economic progress and we want to make sure that we don’t have people left out.”

Iowa ranks 47th in the nation in terms of access to the highest-speed connections, while nearly one-third of Iowans — over 680,000 people — do not even have access to slow-speed broadband service. Branstad isn’t ready to say how much money the state might put up to help finance private sector investment or how the state-owned Iowa Communications Network which provides high-speed connections for state government and schools might be restructured.

“Honestly, how do we know where this is going to go in the next decade or so?” Branstad asked this morning during his weekly news conference. “But I think we realize that this inner-connectivity is going to be key to economic development and we want Iowa to be in a leading position on this.”

Branstad has asked an already existing advisory group working on expansion of science, technology, engineering and math courses in Iowa schools to study the problem and make some preliminary recommendations by December 1. John Carver, the superintendent of the Howard-Winnishiek Community School District, is co-chair of the advisory group.

“We are in uncharted ground and there is no one solution,” Carver said this morning. “It takes multiple points of light to make this go.”

The “TechNetState Broadband Index” ranks Iowa 11th out of 12 Midwest states in terms of how many households have broadband access and the speeds of available networks. Critics have long argued the state-owned fiber optic system is unfair competition and made it unprofitable to private companies to lay cable into rural areas of the state. According to Branstad, the ICN is a valuable state asset and there may be another way to use the fiber optic system.

“When the public sector and the private sector come together and we see mutual benefit so we can see the opportunity for private sector businesses to be able to grow and serve more people, we see the need for the public sector to meet some of the education and other public needs, there can be a win-win situation,” Branstad told reporters this morning. “That’s what we hope will come out of this.”

Amy Kuhlers is project manager for Connect Iowa, a non-profit group, and she’ll serve as executive director of the task force studying high-speed connectivity issues in Iowa.

“Getting the remaining 29 percent of our population online is not going to be an easy task, but the risk of doing nothing is too great,” Kyuhlers said today. “This mission is going to require that the public and private sectors get together.”

The group’s first meeting is next week and they plan to meet twice a month through the end of the year