Louisiana’s Office of Broadband and Connectivity officially opens next week

Olivia and Bridgett Deleon work on virtual classes on a laptop. (Photo courtesy Spencer Deleon)

As Louisiana’s Office of Broadband and Connectivity will begin operating next week, Rep. Daryl Deshotel, R-Avoyelles, said the state has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve this problem.”

“We haven’t seen this amount of money flow from the federal government since The New Deal,” Deshotel said in a phone interview with The Illuminator. “This is really unprecedented, and we need to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Louisiana is set to receive more than $5 billion in state and local aid from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. A portion of the bill’s infrastructure funding can be spent on expanding rural broadband, water projects or sewage projects.

A lack of rural internet connection in Louisiana has been an ongoing issue in the state, and the problem became more noticeable when schools were shut down during the pandemic and more families were forced to resort to online learning. In all, there are 403,000 Louisiana households (about 25 percent of the state’s total number of households) without no kind of internet connection, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty-two percent of households have no broadband connection.

During last year’s legislative special session, Deshotel introduced the bill that created the Office of Broadband and Connectivity. The bill was signed into law.

Deshotel said he’s asked the Louisiana Department of Education and local municipalities to pitch in to the broadband infrastructure funding. Ted Beasley, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education, said the education department has provided $500,000 in funds to the broadband office already.

“It’s going to take private investment, it’s going to take the stimulus money, it’s going to take the Department of Education, it’s going to take the locals and the state all participating,” Deshotel said. “I look at (the Office of Broadband and Connectivity) as basically the coordinator.”

Veneeth Iyengar, Louisiana’s first executive director for Broadband Development and Connectivity, will head the Office of Broadband and Connectivity. Iyengar was hired in late February.

Rep. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, who has been a vocal advocate for expanding broadband access, said she’s “very much excited” for Iyengar to begin. “He brings a professional commitment and energy to drive the effort statewide,” she said.

Every parish’s broadband infrastructure needs vary, Deshotel said, and needs will vary depending on where you are in the state. “In some areas, it may be make-ready type work. New polls or that kind of stuff,” he said. “In other parts of the state, it may be installing fiber down certain corridors or streets.”