Gov. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy celebrated the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to award Louisiana $342 million to expand broadband internet access in the state, but Louisiana’s superintendent of education and a lawmaker whose district has spotty access called the FCC grant a good first step but not the solution to the problem..
Louisiana should receive the announced money over a 10-year period. The goal is for the state to connect 175,000 more homes and businesses.
The inability of so many rural residents to access the internet has been an ongoing issue in the state, and the problem became even more noticeable and problematic when schools were shut down during the pandemic and families were forced to resort to online learning.
“Louisianians without broadband access deserve the same educational and work opportunities that Americans who have high-speed internet already enjoy,” Sen. Kennedy said in a statement.
Sen. Kennedy is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which has jurisdiction over the FCC.
“The pandemic has made it more urgent than ever to bridge the digital divide in underserved rural areas—telehealth, telework, and online classes demand broadband expansion,” the senator wrote.. “I’m glad to see the FCC invest $342 million to expand broadband access to 175,000 Louisiana families and businesses. It’s past time to build out this infrastructure.”
Gov. Edwards echoed Kennedy’s remarks and called broadband connectivity in rural areas “one of my top priorities.”
“This allocation will go a long way in increasing the connectivity of hundreds of thousands of Louisianans, which will improve their ability to participate and compete in an ever-growing digital world,” the governor said.
In all, there are 403,000 Louisiana households (about 25 percent of the state’s total number of households) with no internet connection according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty-two percent of households have no broadband connection.
The lack of broadband connectivity is especially stark in rural Louisiana. Luke Letlow, who was just elected to the U.S.House from Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, told the Louisiana Illuminator last month that on the topic of rural broadband, he doesn’t know if there’s a congressional district in the country that needs more help than the state’s 5th district.
Letlow, who doesn’t have high-speed internet at his home in Start, said many residents in his district can’t work from home or watch Netflix in multiple rooms of the house. Investing in expanding broadband access is no different than investing in expanding roads and bridges access, Letlow said.
“There’s no difference, in my mind, in putting investments in the information superhighway,” Letlow said. “It’s not only what connects our communities, but what connects us to the world.”
Louisiana State Superintendent Cade Brumley had implemented a statewide educational technology plan before the fall semester this year to work to close that digital divide for students. He said one of the lessons the pandemic taught him was how essential broadband access is for every student in the state.
“This investment is a step in the direction of ensuring all families are connected to the tools they need to help their children succeed,” Brumley said.
Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, agreed that this is a step in the right direction, but it’s only a start. Mizell said that while her district — where 46 percent of children do not have any internet — will receive grant money from the FCC, other districts with similar internet gaps won’t.
“All the states around us have invested nicely into expanding broadband. We haven’t stepped up, and we really need to do it,” Mizell said.
Which districts received money for rural broadband expansion was entirely market driven, Mizell said, based on internet providers in those areas bidding to install broadband. “Some areas had no bidders so they were not on the map right now and that’s what we need to find money to do,” Mizell said.
The good news for those rural districts that won’t receive funding from the FCC is that funding toward rural broadband expansion will be allocated in the next stimulus package that Congress passes, Mizell said.
“Apparently the federal government realizes broadband is really important,” Mizell said.