Broadband Commission meeting discusses eliminating digital divide in Louisiana by 2029

Veneeth Lyengar, Governor John Bel Edwards’ appointee for Louisiana’s first executive director of broadband development and connectivity, spoke to attendees at a Broadband Commission meeting on Oct. 28 regarding funding options and what is going on at the State level with Broadband.

With the expansion of faster internet connections across the state, numerous benefits can be realized as more and more residents are connected. These include education, economic development, public safety, health care, remote work, entertainment and access for people with disabilities.

The Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities grant program aims to help private providers facilitate the deployment of broadband service to unserved areas of the state. Any local government in Louisiana can partner with a private provider and apply for GUMBO grants. The initial round of grants will open for applications on Nov. 1, 2021, and close on Dec. 31, 2021. The application review and protest period will occur during January and February 2022, with awards to be issued spring 2022.

Closing the gap of the digital divide is a significant challenge and lofty goal, but we believe it can be eliminated in Louisiana by 2029. Challenges around this exist in three main pillars:

Access

Data from McKinsey and Company indicates there are several hundred thousand households throughout Louisiana that lack broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. ConnectLA aims to assist local leaders in identifying the extent of the problem locally and how they can use the available resources to their benefit. In the near term, there are two programs that aim to impact our Louisiana residents. In the fall of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission awarded $342 million to 13 private internet service providers through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This funding will provide broadband internet to a considerable number or residents over a six-year period. In addition, the state GUMBO grant program will fund around $180 million for local providers to work with municipalities to build out broadband infrastructure. Between these two programs, we can potentially impact over 250,000 locations over the next five to six years.

In Natchitoches Parish it’s estimated that around 14,000 residents do not have access to broadband.

Curious about what speeds you have locally? Test your speed out using the Delta Regional Authority’s speed test online at https://dra.gov/research/broadband-mapping.

Affordability

A big hurdle to broadband access for some residents is being able to afford monthly charges for internet service. According to McKinsey and Company, 43.6% of Louisianians do not have access to a low cost home high-speed internet subscription. Assisting and providing support to those with affordability concerns will ensure they receive the support they need. ConnectLA feels that this is an important area to have a positive impact within. The GUMBO grant program includes affordability as a scoring metric to ensure that we offer affordable programs.

Launched in May of 2021, the FCC now offers an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that provides a discount for broadband access to qualifying residents. Louisiana ranks in the top twenty beneficiaries of the program, and we strongly encourage our residents to apply.

In the 714 zip code area it’s estimated that around 15,000 households may be eligible for federal assistance programs.

Digital Literacy

In Natchitoches Parish it’s estimated that as many as 6,000 residents ages 18-64 may lack necessary digital literacy skills.

In today’s society, it is critical for residents of all ages to be able to use the technology and resources available to them. The goal of digital literacy initiatives is to provide learning opportunities and resources for users to gain a working knowledge of the devices and applications at use in their lives. Internal office analysis, extrapolated from the results of a national 2012 digital problem-solving assessment contained within a 2018 U.S. Department of Education report, indicates that as many as 460,000 Louisiana residents, ages 18-64, lack basic foundational computer skills to take full advantage of broadband services. To provide affordable broadband connectivity to all, we must also ensure leaders throughout our state provide the digital literacy tools necessary for Louisianians to excel. ConnectLA is actively working with Louisiana entities such as the Board of Regents, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the State Librarian to develop a model of success that can be implemented in your parish. A specific program endorsed by the Board of Regents is the Northstar Digital Literacy program which can be a helpful tool for supporting your local efforts. You can make your town or parish the most connected place in the world, but if your residents can’t operate a computer or mobile device, we as a state can’t improve the quality of life for our families.


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