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Broadband Efforts Moving Too Slow for Rural Louisiana Schools

Many rural families are having to make do with mobile hotspots, while a recent report by the Legislative Auditor's Office show some planned broadband projects have yet to enter the construction phase.

(TNS) — Like most school superintendents, Al Simmons often brings work home with him.

But unlike school chiefs in urban areas, Simmons can't rely on his home Internet in rural Louisiana. Instead, he pays for a mobile WiFi device and uses his phone as a hotspot.

"It's part of my job, so I've invested in those things," said Simmons, superintendent of the Winn Parish school system. But, "it's not cheap."

Simmons is not alone: More than one in three residents in his north Louisiana parish lack access to affordable, high-speed Internet, according to state data.

Winn is one of many remote areas in the state where limited Internet service makes it harder to work and learn. This "digital divide" between rural and urban areas posed huge challenges during the pandemic, when many rural students couldn't participate in online learning. But unreliable Internet access continues to hold back many students today, especially as virtual learning becomes a bigger part of education.

Using federal funds, Louisiana launched a multi-year effort to bring high-speed Internet to underserved areas. But the process has moved slowly, meaning many rural educators and students remain disconnected.

"There are so many families in those communities that don't have access to any form of Internet," said Donnie Choate, technology coordinator for the school district in Bienville Parish, where state data shows over 60 percent of residents lack high-speed Internet.

A 2020 state report found that more than 40 percent of Louisiana households were without high-speed Internet access, called broadband, that allows multiple users in a home to do virtual learning.

In an effort to bridge that gap, the state in 2021 created its Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity, also called ConnectLA. The office used federal funds to pay for high-speed Internet infrastructure in areas that lacked it. Last year, the federal government awarded Louisiana $1.4 billion to expand broadband access across the state.

But the rollout of the broadband programs has lagged, according to a report released last month by the Legislative Auditor's Office. Some projects have yet to enter the construction phase, despite a December deadline looming.

One federal program Louisiana is using to bring Internet to remote areas is called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. It's helping finance more than 146,000 projects across the state.

According to federal rules, 40 percent of those projects must be finished by the end of the year. But as of last month, just 10 percent of those projects had been completed, with three out of 10 providers still only in the planning phase, the Auditor's report said.

Another program is called Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities or GUMBO. Just over 18 percent of the program's 66,351 programs had been served as of March, the report said. The report also said that ConnectLA will have too few staffers to do its job effectively as the GUMBO grant program enters its second phase.

Veneeth Iyengar, executive director at ConnectLA, told the state board of education Wednesday that his team was "on a sprint" to allocate the federal funds as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, in areas where reliable Internet remains elusive, educators and district officials say help can't come soon enough.

Choate, the Bienville Parish Schools technology coordinator, said that federal grants during the pandemic allowed the parish to purchase large quantities of hotspots for students. However, they have proved to be an imperfect solution.

"The issue is even hotspots are relying on cell phone towers," he said. "If a kid is in an area that doesn't have good cell phone coverage, those hotspots are useless if they're trying to do their work from home."

According to BroadbandNow, one in five households currently don't have Internet access, ranking Louisiana 46th among states in the website's annual rankings of Internet coverage, speed and availability.

The problem also disproportionately affects communities of color. Data shows 12 percent of Black households and 11 percent of Hispanic homes don't have quality Internet, compared to 7 percent of White households.

In 2023, the state's broadband office released a five-year plan that emphasized the importance of high-speed Internet to education.

The plan called for raising awareness about broadband access and affordability programs for students and families, implementing digital literacy skills and strengthening training for high-tech jobs.

"Like railways in the 19th century and electricity in the 20th century, broadband has become as critical as these types of basic public infrastructure," the report says. "Our state's families and children have been forced to rely on broadband for virtual education."

Meagan Brown is superintendent of schools in East Carroll Parish, where ConnectLA's website shows that more than 31 percent of residents don't have Internet. Her district tries to support students who don't have Internet at home by offering after-school tutoring or advisory periods where kids can use the school Internet to complete assignments.

For many students, not having Internet access "would essentially equate to lower grades, missed assignments, or struggling to complete homework," Brown said.

Brown added that she had to rely on her phone and a mobile wireless hotspot to work from home until this past January, when her parish received money to establish broadband in some areas through a partnership between church group Delta Interfaith and Conexon, a home Internet provider.

Joyce Russ, superintendent of schools in Tensas Parish, where more than half of residents are without Internet, said her staff also sets aside time for students to complete their assignments in school.

For her district, she said, better broadband access would give educators and students more flexibility.

Teachers would be able to give assignments "where kids could use the Internet at home," she said.

©2024 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.