BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana intends to spend $180 million over three years on grants to telecommunication firms that construct broadband internet infrastructure in underserved communities, hoping to lessen a technology gap exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
For thousands of Louisiana households and businesses, affordable high-speed internet is out of reach, making simple tasks of modern living such as internet browsing, online shopping or watching a YouTube video often impossible.
The Advocate reports the problem is particularly acute in Louisiana’s rural communities — where residents are widely dispersed and internet providers have little incentive to shell out the capital it takes to install fiber cables, the gold standard of broadband capabilities.
When the pandemic forced students into virtual classrooms, people in the rural city of Ville Platte struggled because they have some of the slowest internet speeds in the nation. Parking lots at McDonald’s and City Hall soon filled with residents in need of a hotspot.
“You couldn’t get things done because it just took too long,” Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine said. “It crippled, and in some cases paralyzed, the city. It was a nightmare.”
Louisiana lawmakers earmarked millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief aid to try to address the problem, by subsidizing broadband projects. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ newly created Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity will run the grant program.
To get the grants, firms will have to cover at least 20% of costs and be required to provide high-speed internet at affordable prices for the next five years. The projects will be evaluated based on how many households and businesses they serve, and ones that receive buy-in from local governments will earn extra points.
Rep. Daryl Deshotel, a Marksville Republican who sponsored the legislation, said the state’s economic growth will depend on lessening the connectivity divide.
“Louisiana is going to battle with other states to attract new industries,” Deshotel told The Advocate. “Do we want to go to battle with 60% of our soldiers? Because that’s who participates in our digital economy at the moment.”
To bring high-speed internet to every household in Louisiana, the state would need to invest around $1.1 billion, according to Veneeth Iyengar, head of Edwards’ Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity.
With $180 million, up to 145,000 households could become connected to high-speed internet, Iyengar said.
Complimenting those efforts is another $372 million the federal government awarded directly to providers last year to extend coverage over the next decade to 175,000 households and businesses.
With money available, the next challenge involves deciding where to invest the dollars. An estimated 1.6 million residents in Louisiana — about one-third of the state’s population — don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to an analysis from consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Information on where high-speed internet is already available is incomplete. The Federal Communications Commission maps coverage, but the data is based on industry self-reporting and is widely understood to be unreliable.
Deshotel, who runs a technology firm and launched his career building wireless networks for school districts, said providers often exaggerate their coverage areas.
“There are a lot of areas that are labeled as ‘served’ that are actually unserved,” Deshotel said.
He said a new, more sophisticated effort from the FCC seeks to map broadband connectivity at the household level. A separate effort from the Delta Regional Authority is asking residents to run a speed test on their computers to crowdsource the data.
Vidrine said she hopes the new broadband program will incentivize providers to pay attention to smaller towns like hers that are “always falling through the cracks.”
“We’re sick and tired of being last on the totem pole,” she said.
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