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Matt Burgess with GM Cable Contractors Inc, checks how much has been fed of about 700-feet of fiber optic cable to Chris Finley, not pictured, at the next node in an LSU Law School parking lot Monday March 2, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. They said they are in the process of upgrading all the gates on the entire campus from copper cable to fiber optic cable. Arms up ...

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, and society turned to technology to stay connected, the rural town of Ville Platte was left in a lurch. With some of the slowest internet speeds in the nation, students there struggled to log on to their virtual classrooms, and working from home wasn't an option. 

“You couldn’t get things done because it just took too long,” Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine said. “It crippled, and in some cases paralyzed, the city. It was a nightmare.”

The parking lots at McDonald's and City Hall soon filled with residents in need of a hotspot. 

For thousands of Louisiana households and businesses, affordable, high-speed internet is out of reach, making simple tasks of modern living like browsing the web, running a credit card or watching a YouTube video mind-numbingly slow and oftentimes impossible. 

The problem is particularly acute in the state’s rural communities, where residents are widely dispersed, and internet providers have little incentive to shell out the capital it takes to install fiber cables, the gold-standard of broadband capabilities. 

But Louisiana is hoping to change that calculus. The state over the next three years plans to dole out $180 million in grants to telecommunication firms that construct internet infrastructure in underserved communities. Legislation establishing the program is expected to earn final approval from Gov. John Bel Edwards in the coming days. 

The program will subsidize projects using dollars from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congressional Democrats in March — and with a trillion-dollar infrastructure package pending in Washington, it will likely serve as vehicle to distribute even more grants in the future. 

Firms will have to cover at least 20% of costs and will be required to provide high-speed internet at affordable prices for the next five years. The projects will be evaluated based on how many households and businesses they serve, and ones that receive buy-in from local governments will earn extra points. 

Rep. Daryl Deshotel, a Marksville Republican who authored the legislation, said the vast majority of jobs in the coming decades will be internet-based and if the divide between the haves and the have-nots of connectivity isn’t solved soon, the state's economy will suffer. 

“Louisiana is going to battle with other states to attract new industries,” Deshotel said. “Do we want to go to battle with 60% of our soldiers? Because that’s who participates in our digital economy at the moment.”

To bring high-speed internet to every household in Louisiana, around $1.1 billion will ultimately need to be invested, according to Veneeth Iyengar, who will run the new grant program as head of Edwards' Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity.

With $180 million, up to 145,000 households could become connected to high-speed internet, Iyengar said. The grant program will run at an "accelerated pace," he added, distributing up to $90 million in grants by January.

Complimenting those efforts is another $372 million the federal government awarded directly to providers last year to extend coverage over the next decade to 175,000 more households and businesses. 

Now that money is less of a problem, the next challenge officials will face is where to invest it. That's because information on where high-speed internet is already available is incomplete. The Federal Communications Commission, which sets broadband benchmarks, maps coverage, but the data is based on industry self-reporting and is widely understood to be unreliable. 

Deshotel, who launched his career building wireless networks for school districts in the 1990s and runs the technology firm DETEL, said providers often exaggerate their coverage areas and that some maps count an entire census tract as "served" even if only one household within its boundaries has broadband. 

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"There are a lot of areas that are labeled as 'served' that are actually unserved," Deshotel said, adding that a new, more sophisticated effort from the FCC seeks to map broadband connectivity at the household level. A separate effort from the Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state partnership that includes Louisiana, is asking residents to run a speed test on their computers to crowdsource the data.

It's difficult to pinpoint the scope of the digital divide in Louisiana, but an estimated 1.6 million Louisianans, covering 643,000 households, don't have access to high-speed internet, according to an analysis from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. The firm also estimated that nearly half of the state's households lack access to affordable service. Nearly 88,000 residents are benefiting from emergency assistance from the FCC to cover internet costs during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, Deshotel said his home unexpectedly turned into the “remote learning hub” for his kid’s classmates. With high-speed internet scarce in rural Avoyelles Parish, dozens of students would stop by to hop on his network to complete their schoolwork.

“Why should my kids have access to remote learning and all these other kids in our parish don’t?” Deshotel said. “I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think it's productive for our society. We’re going to end up leaving kids behind.”

In Ville Platte, the average internet speed was measured at just under 8 Mbps, placing it in the bottom five cities nationwide for internet connectivity, according to a study last year from HighSpeedInternet.com, which analyzed 2 million internet speed tests across the country. 

The state's grant program will require providers offer at least 25 Mbps, a speed which allows a family of four to surf the web and stream movies and is the minimum benchmark the federal government has set for broadband.  

Paul Coreil, chancellor at LSU of Alexandria, said that for rural communities already facing population loss, access to high-speed internet is a life or death necessity. During the pandemic, his university received a waiver to keep its computer labs open because so many of its students in rural Rapides Parish didn't have access to internet. He said if rural communities want to attract those students once they graduate, they'll need to beef up their broadband. 

"If we had proper, faster internet, we could keep our young people from wanting to move away," Ville Platte's Mayor Jennifer Vidrine agreed. 

Farmers have begun using more technology in recent years that require strong internet connections for things like soil sensors and even autonomous tractors. And commercial fisherman in Cameron Parish are using the internet to post their catches and sell directly to consumers, Coreil said.

Hospitals and other medical providers have also begun offering services for rural patients to video chat with doctors, which spares them from making a long trip, though those connections only work with adequate broadband. 

Iyengar said the broadband expansion will serve as an economic multiplier for rural communities, citing a 2018 study from Purdue University that found a $4 return on investment for every dollar invested in broadband in rural Indiana. 

Laying infrastructure, however, is only the first step. McKinsey estimated that nearly 744,000 Louisianans lack the digital literacy required to take advantage of high-speed internet, and Coreil said colleges and universities will need to lead the way in offering continuing education classes to catch residents up to speed.  

Vidrine said she hopes the program will incentivize providers to pay attention to smaller towns like hers that are "always falling through the cracks and missing out on the services found in the larger cities."

Much of the internet provided in the city comes from satellites, which often lose connection during heavy rains. During hurricane season last year, Vidrine said one community went without internet for nearly two weeks. 

When the pandemic shuttered nursing homes to visitors, Vidrine said residents in Ville Platte didn’t have the luxury of video chatting with their elderly relatives. The internet was too slow and calls would freeze.

“The internet failed them,” Vidrine said. "We're sick and tired of being last on the totem pole."


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater