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Students from the Iberville STEM Academy hold up a map of areas that will see high-speed internet installed as part of a $15.5 million broadband expansion effort.

The spread of COVID-19 has led to widespread disruptions, business closings and event cancellations across Louisiana. Aside from the impact it’s having on our daily lives, our state’s shortcomings coming to light during this time are particularly troubling.

As employers and universities across the state move their work and classes online, those in Louisiana’s urban areas may be unaware that a lack of rural broadband access is causing many Louisianans to be left behind.

Broadband speeds are essential to taking advantage of the digital revolution, which makes activities like working and learning from home possible across the nation. But getting broadband connections to rural customers often proves difficult due to a combination of factors.

One critical component that can either enhance or hinder broadband deployment is government policy. Government imposed costs like franchise, right of way and pole attachment fees are often significant cost drivers for internet services providers when deploying equipment. The application process for equipment deployment can also prove long and laborious, adding to both the time and monetary cost of providing services to new customers. Red tape and extra fees can be the difference between a company offering service or deploying elsewhere.

Fortunately, government can also remove these barriers to deployment. When the legislative session reconvenes, Louisiana lawmakers will have two bills on the table aimed at closing the digital divide. One would create a streamlined process for internet service providers to use existing electrical infrastructure to reach rural customers, while the other would allow cities to become certified “connected-ready communities.” Both pieces of legislation would hasten the deployment of high-speed internet access crucial to reaching both urban and rural Louisianans.

In addition to state legislation, the Federal Communications Commission is giving away $20 billion in grant money to allow private companies to reach rural customers. Louisiana currently has 188,000 eligible locations for grant money to connect unserved residents and businesses. Steps taken at the state and local level to reduce red tape and costs will allow this money to go further in connecting more Louisianans who need it most.

In a state already experiencing poor educational outcomes and a struggling economy, it’s critical we all work to ensure students avoid falling further behind and workers continue to create value. If Louisiana wants to be competitive in an increasingly connected world, internet deployment should be near the top of every lawmaker’s list.

ERIC PETERSON

director of policy, Pelican Institute for Public Policy

New Orleans

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