House committee advances bill to expand broadband access throughout Louisiana

Students are using their laptops to do schoolwork. (Getty Images)

Daryl Deshotel’s (R-Avoyelles) HB 648, which creates the “Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities” grant program to expand broadband access throughout the state, advanced without objection out of the Louisiana House Commerce Committee Monday. 

Deshotel said this bill “sets up the framework to allow us to distribute” the $180 million was provided Louisiana for broadband expansion by the American Rescue Plan Act. If passed, the bill would put the newly created Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity in charge of distributing the grant money.

“The federal government has realized that we do have a digital divide in our country,” Deshotel said to the committee. “We’re separating our poor communities from our rich communities. We’re separating rural from urban — and as a country, we have to come together to solve this issue.”

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 any kind of internet connection, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty-two percent of households have no broadband connection. About 200,000 Louisiana students didn’t have access to high-speed internet during the pandemic, Deshotel said.

Rep. Rodney Schamerhorn (R-Hornbeck) voluntarily deferred his  HB 476, which would expand access to broadband internet by allowing parishes and municipalities to enter into public-private partnerships. Deshotel said if his bill passes, any other bills related to rural broadband would be “duplicative.”