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Iowa: Rural Broadband, and the Unknown Costs of the Digital Divide

Published in the Columbia Journalism Review on October 15, 2018
Article by Lyz Lenz

IowaThe last time I almost died was in February. A late winter thaw had made me overconfident in the roads, and so I’d gone out in search of an abandoned pioneer church just outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One hour into the journey and I was stuck on a dirt road, my Mazda caught in an icy rut as sleet came down in sheets. There was no one around for miles. My phone, which has the fanciest data plan Verizon can muster, had no service, no data. I couldn’t see any houses. There was no one to hear me scream.

According to US News and World Report, Iowa is the most connected state in the nation, which presumably means they have a high percentage of households with access to high-speed internet. But the data used for that analysis is deeply flawed. It is easy to find yourself completely unconnected from the wires and signals that pull us all together through our computers and mobile devices.

For those of us in America who are extremely online, it’s easy to think of the internet as the source of our problems—misinformation, Twitter bots, Russian hacking, social media stress. The real source, however, is the huge gap in information services. Despite bipartisan support on the issue, the crisis of America’s digital divide has failed to become a headline grabber or garner any real action from politicians as midterms approach. This information disparity undermines our democracy, hampers how we do journalism, and shapes how Americans interact with the news.

Reports of Iowa’s connectivity are greatly exaggerated, according to Ashley Hitt, director of GIS Services for the broadband advocacy nonprofit Connected Nation. The FCC requires providers to report their coverage areas as broken out by census blocks. In cities, these census blocks are often actual neighborhood blocks. But in rural areas they can be quite large. If just one house in that area is served by a provider, then the FCC considers the entire area connected. Hitt also points out that many providers, large and small, often overestimate their connectivity because they simply lack accurate, independently verified maps.

“I’ve been out in Iowa and heard people tell me that they can’t get internet,” says Hitt. “They can’t do their jobs. They can’t access medical files. Their grandkids won’t visit because they can’t get work done out there. But the government is telling them they have three internet providers and that’s just not the case."

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