Citizens who live in urban areas of Louisiana may not realize what it’s like for their counterparts in rural areas who either don’t have internet service or don’t have service that meets their needs. Some 1 million people fit those two categories.
Mark Ballard of The Advocate made a plea for those rural residents in his Sunday column, and we hope it gets some statewide attention. Ballard said 494,000 people don’t have high-speed internet, about 361,000 have access to only one provider and another 254,000 people don’t have any internet providers.
In Baton Rouge and other big suburban parishes, 98 percent of the people have access to high speed internet. Ballard said in Tensas Parish, nobody has access to high speed internet and in Catahoula Parish, only 1.1 percent has enough speed to watch Netflix.
Ballard said the problem in Louisiana has been the belief that only private industry is innovative and efficient enough to provide internet service. However, he said private companies in this state didn’t extend phone lines to all rural areas until 2005. It’s also why nearly a million homes and businesses get their power from electric cooperatives created by the federal government.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has counted 188,000 Louisiana households that would be immediately eligible for a new Trump administration program aimed at extending internet coverage. The FCC will vote Jan. 30 on launching the $20.4-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and Louisiana needs to participate.
The first federal effort to wire up rural Louisiana in 2011 was rejected by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who favored a privatization effort that never materialized. The federal government then withdrew its $80.6 million grant that would have linked thousands of schools, libraries, health care centers and homes in 21 low-income, rural parishes to the internet. Ballard said it isn’t fair to only blame Jindal. The state Board of Regents offered to upgrade high speed internet connections to school districts statewide — for free — but only 11 of the 69 districts signed up and the proposal was dropped in 2017.
Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an executive order in August that created a Broadband for Everyone in Louisiana (BEL) to expand broadband service in the state by 2029. However, that effort is waiting for members of the BEL Commission to be appointed by the newly elected legislative leadership. Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and state Rep. Francis Thompson of Delhi have been pushing expansion of rural internet service for a long time, and other state officials need to join the effort. Rural areas have waited long enough.