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Panel discusses challenges, opportunities in broadband expansion during Partnership’s policy discussion


The Greater Des Moines Partnership hosted a conversation this week on the issue of broadband and expanding high-speed internet to underserved areas of the state.

It was the second in the Partnership’s Public Policy Issue forum series. The next one is scheduled for June 15.

The discussion, held Tuesday, was moderated by WHO-TV’s Dave Price. Panelists included Laura Smith, chief information officer of UnityPoint Health, Annette Dunn of the chief information office of the state of Iowa, and Brian Waller, president of the Technology Association of Iowa.

The focus on broadband comes as the Legislature continues to move bills that would act on Gov. Kim Reynold’s proposal to spend $450 over the next three years to expand high-speed internet statewide.

This week’s conversation ranged from challenges facing the state as it works to expand high-speed internet to possible solutions to those challenges and how the internet has helped keep people connected during the pandemic.

Here are some of the highlights:

Smith: “Health equity. When I think of a lack of access to broadband, that creates a digital divide, and that digital divide absolutely contributes to health inequity. If we’re able to close or narrow that digital divide, we are able then to create some opportunities as it relates to health equity in all the ZIP codes of the state of Iowa.”

Dunn: “Resources. We all know the legislative body and Gov. Reynolds is really proposing a significant amount of funding, which is definitely needed. But the problem we face is broadband is part of infrastructure. We all know the federal government is putting money toward infrastructure, which means time, equipment, individuals to help us with the equipment in Iowa will be restricted, so we have to stay on top of that. We have to have these resources, the time, the money, and really make a huge effort towards proliferating this very quickly.”

Waller: “Future-proofing the investment. Technology moves at such a rapid pace, how we keep up with it and maintain that investment for the long haul is a challenge. On the social side of this, as we get more Iowans with access to high-speed internet, more access to the information and innovation economy, how are we upskilling these Iowans to utilize these systems that they really have never been comfortable utilizing? How do Iowans, now that we give them access, how do we upskill them to the information economy and access some of these systems which some of us take for granted?”

Dunn: “Our role is trying to get that money out and [find the] quickest way possible to get service to Iowans. With the entire nation trying to increase broadband efforts, I think the Iowa companies will have just as much opportunity as any outside-of-Iowa company.”

Waller: “We would love Iowa companies to be the first to go to, but we’re competing globally. The technology world is huge. There are a lot of service providers and vendors out there. I agree with the state’s perspective of we’d love to do it locally here first, but we’re in a global, competitive world that we live in. It takes all providers.”

Satellite vs. fiber
Dunn: “We try to stay vendor agnostic, or technology agnostic; whatever it takes to get the speed we need and the services we need out to Iowans is the key. I have connected several of our very rural, no provider available areas to some things like SpaceX, and it has helped the communities. We are not in full mode for that to happen. They’re only in beta testing. It’s at least another year off. There are things they need to improve but we do have conversations with them. It’s very difficult to predict the future. We should always be pushing ourselves to have the best technology Iowans deserve, and I think we always have to be looking at speeds. I don’t think we’ll ever get away from having fiber.”

Lessons learned during COVID
Smith: “There certainly was this burning platform to disrupt how we traditionally deliver care. I’ll use traditional telehealth as an example for our scheduled visits with ambulatory providers or urgent care type of visit. We had offered those previously, but the uptick wasn’t there. We didn’t have great adoption by our patients and some on the provider side or clinician side, but when that was one of the few options that you had, you figured it out and we had an over 1,000% increase just in a couple of months related to that type of care. We learned that we can disrupt our traditional business model and it worked. We were able to still provide really great care for our organization.”

Downside to improved connectivity
Waller: “Will you become a CIO working from home? I don’t think you will. If you want to advance and become a leader, you’re going to have to be in the room. When you talk about remote workers, we have staffing companies that are members of ours that are recruiting for companies, they’re seeing a big uptick from out-of-state technology companies. … We need to be aware of that dichotomy too, that’s going. The downside I think is people who want to be leaders, you need to have access to leadership, you need to be in the room with leaders, and you’re not going to do that working from home. I also think you’ll be able to recruit people that want to work from home, so as a company you’ve got to really be flexible with talent because it’s really a war for talent out there.”

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