Broadband task force 020620

State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, chaired the Legislature's Broadband High-Speed Internet Service Task Force on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. On her right is Jeff Arnold, who now heads the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, and on her right is Brandon Frey, secretary in charge of Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies.

Aside from high auto insurance costs, the second most talked-about issue I heard on the campaign trail last year was one that uniquely challenges rural Louisiana — closing the digital divide.

The digital divide refers to those who are unable to access high-speed internet, along with the economic and educational opportunities it provides. Closing this divide has long been a passion of mine, but the issue took a back seat to issues like taxes, legal and budget reform in previous legislative sessions.

The COVID-19 crisis has made our elected officials acutely aware of the damage the digital divide causes. A recent survey by the Louisiana Department of Education found that only 66% of Louisiana students are accessing the internet in their homes.

I have heard countless stories of students and parents in my district struggling to get online to keep up with their education. Some parishes have gotten so desperate to connect their students that they are sending out school buses with Wi-Fi hot spots, so students can do their homework. I opened my district office, so people can use the internet.

The business community has stepped up with actions, such as signing the Keep America Connected Pledge and providing wireless hot spots to students, but more needs to be done to remove barriers to broadband deployment and get families connected.

That’s why I introduced legislation in January to address the digital divide in rural areas of our state. Because electric cooperatives had served a similar purpose in electrifying our state’s rural areas, they seemed a natural fit to partner with the private sector to close the digital divide in those same areas.

But what seemed a common-sense and noncontroversial bill in January has become a political football for opportunistic special interests. Some tried to use my legislation to increase profits rather than serving rural Louisianans. Despite this, my legislation is on its way to the full House, and its still laser-focused on connecting rural Louisiana.

I look forward to enacting innovative, free-market solutions to address this problem, while rejecting the government- and special interest-led status quo that has stood in the way of getting our state connected.

BETH MIZELL

state senator

Franklinton

Bill to push high speed internet faces problems