By Gabe Firment, State Representative District 22
Since taking office in January of 2020 I have spoken with numerous technology companies, state and local officials, and the general public about bringing reliable high speed internet to our homes, businesses, and schools across District 22. The legislature recently passed 2 bills critical to expanding access to high speed internet in rural parts of the state such as District 22.
House Bill 69 by Rep. Daryl Deshotel provides a tax rebate on fiber-optic cable for companies that win bids in the federal government’s $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, meant to promote internet access in currently unserved areas. Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Beth Mizell calls for electricity cooperatives to partner with broadband providers using the co-op’s existing infrastructure.
Taken together, the two measures are meant to help Louisiana compete for a healthy share of the federal funding, hopefully leading to high-speed internet access in areas of the state that don’t currently have it. Louisiana is in line to receive an estimated $600 million in federal government aid over the next 10 years to expand internet service to “unserved and underserved” rural areas. The FCC has allocated $20.4 billion to be spent nationwide over the next 10 years, with the first phase beginning in October of this year.
As Louisiana students and parents await answers on returning to the classroom this fall, the issue of broadband availability is at the front of many of their minds. The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) recently released its 2020 Distance Learning Survey for Louisiana, which reports only 66 percent of students in the state have home internet access. The northern, more rural parishes of Louisiana report lower rates of home connectivity, and the trend continues with students’ access to a computer or tablet at home.
So, how do we connect more students? If we want the necessary investment in broadband infrastructure to occur in rural areas, regulatory barriers restricting progress must come down. Fortunately, the Louisiana legislature recently passed a bill that will break down barriers to rural broadband access, and that legislation was signed by Governor John Bel Edwards last Wednesday. Even though this proposal was signed into law, however, more barriers still stand in the way of connectivity. Until these barriers are gone and investment flows in, thousands of rural Louisiana residents will continue waiting for relief. In the meantime, one thing remains abundantly clear. If we want to put Louisiana students on track to succeed both in and out of the classroom, we must expand broadband internet access in rural communities.
I want to hear from you about this critical issue. Please let me know if you currently have access to reliable internet service, and let me know how important high speed internet is to your family, business, school, and church. Working together we can bring CHANGE to Red River, Grant, LaSalle, Natchitoches, and Winn parishes!