County mulls expanded internet service proposals

Nov. 17—Union County Board of Supervisors did not immediately answer to a proposal Monday by Windstream to spend $1.9 million to improve and expand internet service in the county.

Windstream’s Vice President of Government Affairs Logan Shine informed the supervisors of a plan combining state, county and Windstream funds to improve internet service at 640 specific locations across the county.

According to the office of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this year, about one third of Iowa’s counties are still broadband deserts, where high-speed internet is rarely offered and only 18.5% of Iowans have access to affordable internet plans, well below the national average of 50.1%.

Broadband connections are defined as having download speeds of at least 25 megabits (Mbps) and minimum upload speeds of 3 Mbps. About 35% of Iowa households lack this “25/3″ benchmark for broadband speed.

Iowa ranks 45th in the nation in broadband access and the second-slowest internet speed nationwide, with an average download speed of 78.9 megabits per second (Mbps), according to BroadbandNow.com

The areas in Union County provided by Shine are patchwork with a majority of the locations west of Afton to the Adams County line. The city of Creston is not considered lacking in internet service. Fiber optics would be installed in those areas. Shine said fiber is reliable and resilient and provides efficient service.

The program has the state contributing $6 million for Union County and Windstream investing about $1.9 million. Shine said the county may offer a different amount of funds, but it will change the number of locations.

Shine said if the county has a consensus agreement by Monday, that would meet the deadline to apply for the program.

Windstream is not the only internet provider interested in Union County. Union County Development Association Executive Director Wayne Pantini told the county he is working with Lockridge Network on a fixed wireless internet plan that costs $145,000.

Based in Seymour, the company provides internet access in Wayne, Appanoose, Lucas and Monroe counties. In September, Lockridge Networks was awarded $289,977 from a State of Iowa Broadband Grant Program to expand broadband to Ringgold and Union counties.

Pantini said Lockridge will cover all of Union County. The proposed towers will have a 10-mile radius and serve both eligible and non-eligible residents compared to Windstream’s plan.

Prior to Shine’s presentation, Union County Supervisors discussed the $2.3 million in American Rescue Plan funds. Approved by the federal government, funds are intended to help local governments with economic fallout because of the pandemic. Funds can be used for water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure. The county must decide how the funds will be spent by 2024 and it must be spent by 2026. Union County has half of those funds. The other half will be received at a later date.

The Union County Board of Supervisors will determine how to spend the funds and will have application process to review those requests.

Union County Auditor Sandy Hysell has created a simple one-page application form so interested departments, organizations and businesses can officially submit requests to the board. Hysell plans to have that form this week with a Dec. 3 deadline to return it to her office. The board will review the financial requests at the Dec. 6 board meeting.

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