Louisiana lost an $80 million grant to expand broadband Internet access in rural areas, and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu lashed out at state government for having “fumbled the ball.”
The U.S. Department of Commerce opted to rescind the $80.6 million grant awarded to the state last year as part of federal stimulus dollars after several deadlines were not met.
The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program was intended to provide 900 miles of fiber-optic cable to bring broadband service to 100,000 households and 15,000 businesses. Another 150 schools, universities and medical centers would have benefited. The effort targeted 21 rural parishes, mostly central and northeastern Louisiana.
The grant also was supposed to enhance the state’s own high-speed rail network, which is the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative.
“Despite receiving the green light for more than $80 million in federal funds, the state fumbled the ball and was either unable or unwilling to complete the project, which could have been a tremendous boost to central and northeast Louisiana,” said Landrieu, D-La.
The project is part of the Louisiana Broadband Alliance led by the Louisiana Board of Regents and Louisiana Public Broadcasting.
It started with the Regents under former state Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen and the state has had two commissioners since.
Current Commissioner Jim Purcell said in a prepared statement that, soon after moving to Louisiana this year, “I became aware of some issues and concerns related to this grant, including lack of implementation detail and several design delays.”
The state Division of Administration took over the project earlier this year. Purcell said he worked with the Division of Administration and other stakeholders to develop an “alternative implementation plan that would salvage this project.
“Unfortunately, despite gaining demonstrated support from both our public and private partners, our approach was rejected,” Purcell stated. “We will continue to look for outreach opportunities in our state’s rural communities as well as funding to enhance connectivity to the existing LONI network to support our statewide goal of increasing targeted research.”
State Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater placed the responsibility on the Board of Regents, which led the grant application.
“From the start, we’ve always said there were implementation and sustainability problems in the grant that had to do with a top-down, government-heavy approach that would compete with and undermine, rather than partner with, the private sector and locals,” Rainwater stated.
Landrieu also noted that the state proposed significantly modifying the project, like other states did. But the requests to alter the plan “repeatedly failed to demonstrate to federal officials that it would allow them to complete the project on time and accomplish the same goals as the original application,” according to Landrieu.
She criticized the lack of details and specificity for having “effectively doomed the project.”
As of June 30, according to information submitted to the Department of Commerce, the project had expended $5.3 million of $15 million in state funds and only $431,747 of the $80.5 million federal award.
Despite expending the funds, only 7 percent of the overall project had been completed as of that date, according to Landrieu. The project was in the 19th month of a 36-month timeline with a February 2013 completion date.