As a manufacturer of asphalt paving equipment, Weiler is exactly the type of company poised to benefit if the federal government increases spending on roads and bridges. But when Patrick Weiler talks about infrastructure, the issue he brings up first has next to nothing to do with his company’s core business.
It’s broadband internet service.
Weiler is based in Marion County, Iowa, a rural area southeast of Des Moines. Internet speeds are fine at the company’s 400,000-square-foot factory, because Weiler paid to have a fiber-optic cable run from the nearby highway. But that doesn’t help the surrounding community, where broadband access can be spotty at best. That is a problem for recruitment — already one of the biggest challenges for Weiler and many other rural employers.
“How do you get young people to want to move back into these rural areas when they feel like they’re moving back into a time frame of 20 years ago?” asked Mr. Weiler, the company’s founder and chief executive.
Rural areas have complained for years that slow, unreliable or simply unavailable internet access is restricting their economic growth. But the pandemic has given new urgency to those concerns, at the same time that President Biden’s infrastructure plan — which includes $100 billion to improve broadband access — has raised hope that the problem might finally be addressed.
address to Congress last month. “This is going to help our kids and our businesses succeed in the 21st-century economy.”
Mr. Biden has received both criticism and praise for pushing to expand the scope of infrastructure to include investments in child care, health care and other priorities beyond the concrete-and-steel projects that the word normally calls to mind. But ensuring internet access is broadly popular. In a recent survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, 78 percent of adults said they supported broadband investment, including 62 percent of Republicans.
Businesses, too, have consistently supported broadband investment. Major industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers have all released policy recommendations in the last year calling for federal spending to help close the “digital divide.”
Quantifying that divide, and its economic cost, is difficult, in part because there is no agreed-upon definition of broadband. The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. The Department of Agriculture sets its standard lower, at 10 m.p.s. A bipartisan group of rural-state senators asked both agencies this year to raise their standards to 100 m.p.s. And speed-based definitions don’t take into account other issues, like reliability and latency, a measure of how long a signal takes to travel between a computer and a remote server.
recent study by Broadband Now, an independent research group whose data is widely cited, found that 42 million Americans live in places where they cannot buy broadband internet service, most of them in rural areas.
According to the F.C.C.’s definition, most of Marion County has high-speed access to the internet. But residents report that service is slow and unreliable. And with only one provider serving much of the county, customers have little leverage to demand better service.
Marion County, with 33,000 people, has economic challenges common to rural areas: an aging work force, anemic population growth and a limited set of employers concentrated in a few industries. But it also has assets, including its proximity to Des Moines and a group of employers willing to train workers.
Local leaders have plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers — but those plans won’t work without better internet service, said Mark Raymie, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
“Our ability to diversify our economic base is dependent on modern infrastructure, and that includes broadband,” he said. “We can say, ‘Come and work here.’ But if we don’t have modern amenities, modern infrastructure, that sales pitch falls flat.”
Mr. Weiler’s daughter Megan Green grew up in Marion County, then left to go to college and start her career. When she moved home in 2017 to work for her father’s company, it was like returning to an earlier technological era.