CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Because of the Coronavirus, many Iowans are having to work or learn from home right now. That necessity is shining a new light on the need for high speed broadband service for Iowans living in rural parts of the state. An app, used by Iowa law enforcement, and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, depends on a reliable signal. It's called "TraumaHawk", and it allows troopers or deputies who arrive on a rural crash site, to send pictures or descriptions of people who are hurt, straight to doctors and staff at UIHC. University of Iowa Professor Dan McGehee is the Director of UI's National Advanced Driving Simulator. He says, "Rural areas tend to have much more injuries and fatal crashes, because we're going faster, our roads are more narrow, we don't have big shoulders, so that's where most people are killed."
McGehee and a team from the university, worked with the Iowa Department of Transportation, to create the life saving smartphone app. "The more time that a trauma center or ER has to prepare, the better care and the better outcome we'll see", says McGehee. The app is shown to even double the regular notification time from law enforcement to the hospital. Those precious minutes give the trauma team time to prepare for the specific type of injuries they're about to treat. While "TraumaHawk" works, there needs to be service to use it. McGehee says "The broadband issue is a very important one because, as you point out, in many rural areas, even law enforcement may have dead spots."
According to the online public internet service database, Broadband Now, Iowa ranks 45th in the nation, as one of the worst states for coverage, speed, and price access, in rural regions. The site's senior writer says a new $20 billion dollar fund by the FCC will help states like Iowa, but the FCC relies on census blocks to see who appears to have broadband, and where it's still needed. "The hard truth is, there's no perfect way to measure broadband, until we have address level granularity at the federal level", says Tyler Cooper, Broadband Now Editor-in-Chief. He says we all have an opportunity to help, now. Because 2020 is a Census year, by filling out your form and sending it in, identifying spotty areas in states like Iowa, will be easier. Cooper says, "Ideally, this census will really, for the first time, allow us to have a very update view on what we call those 'internet deserts', areas where right now, we know there's no service, but we can't truly put it on paper and say this is where we need to improve."
Senator Chuck Grassley agrees. He says he often uses Chickasaw County as an example of what the FCC looks at, and what the real numbers are. "FCC records show that 60% of the county was covered, where we know that only 11% of the county is covered", says Grassley. Even the makers of the "TraumaHawk" app know that putting all Iowans on a digital level-playing field is critical, and not just for emergencies. Professor McGehee says "This is bigger than TraumaHawk. It's really a part of the broader emergency network that's critical for law enforcement and first responders, but it's also critical infrastructure for rural agriculture, TeleMedicine, distance learning, and so forth."
The FCC's $20-billion dollar "Rural Digital Opportunity Fund" is spread out over a 10 year period. Here at home, the Empower Rural Iowa Act, signed by Governor Reynolds, has provided $5 million dollars already and is helping to fund 17 broadband projects across rural Iowa. She is expected to ask for $15 million more, once lawmakers begin work on the 2021 budget. Like so many other events, the session is delayed because of the pandemic.