Bridgett Deleon and her three children are having a hard time adjusting to the “new normal” of schooling virtually. Bridgett is studying for a nursing degree. Her daughter Macy is an undergraduate at Southeastern, her son Beau is in electrical vocational school, and daughter Olivia just entered the 8th grade.
But at their home in Franklinton, virtual learning has been nearly impossible throughout the pandemic.
“A lot of times, we can only have one person on the internet at a time because it’s just so slow,” said Bridgett Deleon’s husband Spencer Deleon.
But even when just one person is using the WiFi, the connection will often cut out, which is especially bad for Bridgett, because online exams require uninterrupted connectivity. If she’s taking an online nursing test and the WiFi cuts out, the rules dictate that she receive a failing grade. But fortunately for her, when that did happen, her instructor showed her some mercy and didn’t fail her.
“My daughter also has all kinds of exams to do online,” Spencer Deleon said, “ and it doesn’t work out very well.”
His family’s struggles, especially their inability to get a strong, fast and reliable internet connection, inspired Spencer Deleon to start a Facebook page called “We Want Rural Boadband!”
“My goal is just to get people to talk about their problems with the internet and maybe be a voice for our little community,” Spencer said. “And it’s not just our community, this is for anyone that lives in rural areas.”
According to BroadbandNow, a website that helps consumers find and compare Internet service providers in their area, in Washington Parish, where the Deleons live, about 69 percent of residents have access to an internet speed of 25 megabits per second, the minimum speed that can be called broadband. That means 31 percent of residents, or about 15,000 residents do not.
Washington Parish is not the worst off. For example, according to BroadbandNow, in Tensas Parish only 16 percent of residents have access to a minimum broadband speed.
In all, there are 403,000 Louisiana households (about 25 percent of the state’s total) with no kind of internet connection according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty-two percent of households have no broadband connection.
At a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education earlier this month, the Louisiana Department of Education released a list of solutions parishes can take to close the technology gap among students. On the board’s list of solutions is a plan to “establish public access points” and give students hotspots or MiFis that will allow them to connect to the Internet.
But state Sen. Beth Mizell, whose district includes all of Washington Parish and parts of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes, said that providing hotspots is not an adequate solution.
“I have a hotspot in my home, and that’s my internet, and I can’t download a one- minute YouTube video,” said Mizell. “So to have a virtual classroom dependent on that is not going to solve the problem.”
Mizell said 46 percent of children in her district do not have any internet, which she says is pretty typical of rural Louisiana.
“This is no different than having rural kids not given a textbook. This is what we’ve done to our kids,” Mizell said. “We all want a level playing field, and until there’s internet across the state, there is no level playing field for the rural families.”
Last month, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law Act No. 16 — introduced by Mizell — which grants “permission to a broadband affiliate or a broadband service provider to use the electric delivery system of the cooperative to provide broadband services.”
To put it more simply, companies who install broadband will be more incentivized to provide service in rural areas. But Mizell said the current legislation is just a first step, and that it’s going to take a lot more to get rural Louisiana residents full broadband access.
“I think we’re doing this wrong. We’re trying to start a rural broadband movement from a building in Baton Rouge. It’s got to be the rural people saying, ‘we got to have rural broadband’” and put pressure on their internet providers to give them broadband access, she said. She said “anything we could do to get behind and support that is going to be a much more productive way than for us to legislatively try to push something.”
She said she hopes that money from the next federal relief bill will be dedicated to providing a more permanent solution to the lack of rural broadband access.