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Louisiana Leading in Progress to Provide Rural Internet

Federal officials say that Louisiana has completed seven of eight requirements — more than any other state — toward awarding construction contracts that will deliver high-speed Internet.

rural internet
(TNS) — By at least one measure, Louisiana leads the nation in the effort to connect every home to internet fast enough to watch Netflix.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration says Louisiana has completed seven of eight bureaucratic requirements — more than any other state — towards awarding construction contracts that will lay lines that will deliver high-speed internet to the remaining 200,000 locations, mostly rural, that currently don't have access to the service.

"We're trending to knocking out the problem once and for all," said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director for ConnectLA, an agency state government organized about four years ago to coordinate broadband expansion in Louisiana. He expects nearly every household and business in the state will be connected by 2028.

"By complete, I mean that you can call an internet provider, say 'I need my broadband installed in 10 days,' and get it," Iyengar said. Most unserved and underserved areas of the state can't get service at all or can receive high-speed internet only after paying $15,000 or more for installation.

It took telephone companies decades to ensure everyone in the state had phone service. That didn't happen until 2005 when the Louisiana Public Service Commission pressed the companies to provide cell phone service to remote areas where stringing lines proved too expensive.

President Joe Biden's effort to extend broadband has been likened to the program that brought electricity to rural areas in the 1930s.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state's aggressive pursuit of federal funding for broadband expansion aims to close the digital divide before the next decade begins.

Using different tranches of money, such as dollars from the American Rescue Plan — a pot of federal assistance doled out during the pandemic — the state has completed laying broadband lines in Lafourche and St. Landry parishes. Construction is underway in Iberia, Calcasieu, East Carroll and West Carroll parishes.

"Now we're getting ready for the $1.35 billion," Iyengar said, which he said should be enough to complete the work.

All told, the state will receive about $1.9 billion in federal cash for broadband expansion, a number that includes grants from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Treasury and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Wednesday is the second anniversary of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and members of the Biden administration are using the date to remind voters of all the projects being funded by the $1.2 trillion law. About 40,000 projects are in development, including strengthening the electric grid; upgrading roads, bridges and ports; fixing old drinking water systems that had become dangerous from corrosion; expanding passenger rail; and other infrastructure projects.

Included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is $42.5 billion for Broadband Equity Access and Deployment, or BEAD. Louisiana is getting $1.35 billion — a little less than Alabama, a little more than Georgia.

The BEAD program prioritizes areas marked as "unserved" — those with access to speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload — for subsidized infrastructure projects, followed by "underserved" areas — those with speeds of less than 100 Mbps. The Biden administration said the grant program paves the way for all Americans to have access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service by 2030.

Biden tapped Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, the task of coordinating the work between federal agencies and the states, guiding local governments through the complex bidding and permitting processes. Landrieu says the effort to deliver broadband is his favorite part of the infrastructure act.

"Knowledge is the great equalizer," Landrieu said in an interview last week. "If you don't have access to the technology that gives you access to that knowledge, you get left behind."

In addition to building infrastructure in remote areas, the program also gives $30 in subsidies each month to help offset internet plans for low-income households.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration recently approved Louisiana's initial proposal that, in part, determines how many locations are eligible for broadband infrastructure expansion.

The formal challenge process began on Oct. 6 and should be complete by Jan. 4.

The second volume of the BEAD Initial Proposal focuses more on workforce development, such as training technicians, and teaching about 460,000 Louisiana residents how to use the technology to apply for a job online, schedule a telehealth visit, pay bills and other tasks.

Iyengar said the state should be able to make requests for bids in March or April and after federal approval of those chosen for the work, construction will begin.

© 2023 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.