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Louisiana Unveils GUMBO, a $90M Broadband Expansion Program

Louisiana's Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity is running a new grant program called Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO). First-round grant winners will be announced in March.

(TNS) — From rural villages to inner cities, high-speed Internet is unreachable for thousands of Louisiana residents, but with millions of dollars in grants available, a new state-run initiative aimed at closing the digital divide is garnering significant interest from private companies.

With $90 million to divvy up, Louisiana's Office of Broadband Development & Connectivity received $440 million in funding requests from 23 companies in its first round of applications. The proposals, released online Wednesday, span 58 parishes and seek to provide high-speed Internet to 215,000 households and 14,000 businesses.

"The volume of applications we've received and the enthusiasm for broadband we've encountered from municipalities throughout the state reaffirms just how important our work is to Louisiana," said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of ConnectLA, another name for the state office.

The grant program — known as the Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities, or GUMBO, program — requires applicants to provide high-speed Internet at affordable prices for the next five years and put up at least 20% in matching funds, with points given to those that go beyond that threshold. The first round of applicants put up 40% on average in matching funds.

Winners of the first round of funding will be announced in March, with construction starting as soon as May.

A team of third-party reviewers will begin evaluating the first round of applications Wednesday, scoring them on 23 metrics, including technical ability, financial wherewithal, the number of households and businesses served and scalability.

The program is subsidizing projects using dollars from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congressional Democrats in March — and after the recent passage of a $1.2 trillion-dollar infrastructure package, the program will likely serve as a vehicle to distribute even more grants in the future. Louisiana expects to receive at least $100 million in funding from the legislation, though billions more will be available based on need, Iyengar said.

The state Legislature is expected to send another $85 million from its pot of $1.3 billion in unspent pandemic aid to the grant program in the upcoming legislative session, allowing a second round of GUMBO funding to begin taking applications in July.

The state office is looking to other pots of funding to close the digital divide. Last May, the Federal Communications Commission launched an emergency program to provide households between $50 and $75 a month off broadband bills. Within a seven-month period, Louisiana had over 210,000 households sign up, putting it at number two in the country in terms of participation, Iyengar said.

©2022 The Advocate, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.