Fewer Louisiana residents have access to high-speed internet than almost anywhere else in the nation — largely because of politics.
But the state is on track to be near totally connected before this decade is out — largely because of politics.
The work to extend broadband to the 400,000 homes and businesses without adequate internet service began last week and continues this week with the spending of $165 million, so far, of the $177 million allocated to Louisiana from the American Rescue Plan. During the next 24 months, people at 88,000 addresses will be able to work remotely, access medical records, find markets, sell goods, do school assignments, and yes, watch football and movies.
The big boost will come from the $1 billion or so Louisiana will receive from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a total of $65 billion for broadband.
The $1.2 trillion IIJA package was dismissed by all but two of Louisiana’s congressional delegation as both “socialist” and “elitist.” Yet, contrary to claims that Boston would reap the most benefits, the funding formulas were drafted in a way that Louisiana is all but assured of getting twice as much money as its population justifies.
Part of the reason is geography. Swamps, marshes, and forests isolate many residents and make extending the necessary infrastructure too expensive.
It cost BellSouth Corp. about $47,000 per phone to extend lines to Mink, a settlement of about 15 families 100 miles south of Shreveport, and thereby finally provide universal phone service in Louisiana. That was in February 2005.
Another reason is poverty. Nearly 1 in every 5 residents in this state is officially designated as poverty-stricken, and half the state’s residents live in households below the nation’s median income levels.
For years in the mid- and late 20th century, New Orleans was known as the “nickel town” because of how long Democratic state regulators required calls made from public phone booths to cost 5 cents.
In 2011, the last time the federal government offered millions to connect Louisiana to the internet, the money was withdrawn because Gov. Bobby Jindal favored private companies in dispersing the funds. “This grant called for a heavy-handed approach from the federal government that would have undermined and taken over private businesses,” Jindal said at the time.
On Oct. 1, 2021, six of the eight members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation wrote a letter saying the infrastructure act raises taxes for “a socialist wish list of massive new spending.” The letter was signed by U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, along with U.S. Reps. Garret Graves, Clay Higgins, Julia Letlow and Mike Johnson, all Republicans.
“For broadband, we see a similar outcome. Unfortunately, the bill makes almost no concrete guarantees that it will help underserved communities, which means the first priority would likely go to places like the suburbs of Boston, not communities like Bastrop, Baker and Buras.” the letter stated.
“It will be exactly the opposite. A disproportionate share of those dollars is going to go to rural communities, like in Louisiana, where the market hasn’t connected people with the internet,” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday. “We’re going to get an allocation of the formula dollars that represent our pro rata share of those dollars based on the number of addresses that don’t have access to the internet.”
The Federal Communications Commission is identifying which addresses have access to high-speed internet and which do not. Those maps will be completed in November, and those findings will be inserted into a funding formula that also includes the cost of building the infrastructure.
The formula was derived during Congressional negotiations over the 2,700-plus page legislation. Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, was in the room. He and U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, were the only members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation who voted for the measure, even though constituents of Higgins, Letlow and Johnson will receive the bulk of its largesse in Louisiana.
“By being in the room my goal was to be sure Louisiana was represented, our needs addressed,” Cassidy said Wednesday. “Because of this bill, we are expecting to receive over a billion dollars over the next five years so that everyone in Louisiana has access to high-speed affordable internet.”