Investment offers broadband to students

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Federal funding purchased iPads for parish students, but online learning was hindered by slow internet speeds in homes that had DSL, as depicted by the turtle. By comparison, fiber optic cable broadband, as depicted by the cheetah, would provide high speed internet capable of conducting virtual learning, uninterrupted Zoom meetings and streaming TV and movies.

Juanice Gray | Editor

Broadband. It’s the go-to keyword of the times. Everyone wants, and most need, internet and for Natchitoches Parish, about 90% of the population with faculty, staff and students in K-12 who want it will get it.

The Natchitoches Parish School Board has dedicated $1.2 million in federal ESSER funds as a startup investment that will benefit all residents. EpicTouch pledged about 10% of the project costs to the endeavor and won the $7,980,000 bid. “The priority and scope of this project is to bring internet to students and faculty of the school board,” said Stewart Carnline, EpicTouch director of marketing and public relations

This article published in the July 31, 2021, print edition

For once, the parish is setting the precedent for other parishes to model and follow. The $1.2 million will purchase enough fiber optic cable for the project.

The first hurdle is the demand for the cable is high and supply is low. EpicTouch reached out to its vendors to check availability of the cable in advance of receiving the contract which was just awarded.

Once signed, EpicTouch will take action to secure the cable. It will be stored until additional funding is approved for installation. The need for broadband, or high speed internet, became apparent when the pandemic hit and the school board purchased iPads for all students. A large portion of the 5,700 parish students, almost 3,500, did not have internet access, had limited access or was using internet at slow speeds that were not compatible with online instruction.

EpicTouch staff explained that copper lines can vary greatly in speed depending on the home’s distance from the remote. The homes closer to the remote have higher speeds than those further away and the speeds can be as low as 2 and as high as 100 megabites per second (Mbps). On the other hand, fiber optic cables provide an almost guaranteed consistent flow of 100 Mbps upload and download speed.

NPSB finance director Lee Waskom said total cost to get broadband to 100% of parish homes with K-12 students is roughly $20 million. Getting it to 95% of those homes is only $8 million. That $12 million difference is achieved by excluding the most remote homes in the parish. “We’re leading the way because we (the school district) need it for K-12 learning, but it is for everyone,” Waskom said.

Natchitoches Regional Medical Center (NRMC) is on board with the project since it will enhance telemedicine and telehealth. NRMC provided the following statement, “COVID-19 has shown how beneficial telehealth services can be to the health and wellbeing of a community. NRMC is committed to providing needed health services, including telehealth, right here in our community for our family, friends and neighbors. Expansion of broadband service throughout our parish is a critical step and we are pleased to be a partner in this project.”

Grant writers are actively seeking additional monies to fully fund the project.

Sen. Louie Bernard and former Sen. Gerald Long attended an informational meeting Tuesday to pledge their support. Long said there are 26 federal programs that offer grant money for broadband incentives.

Wednesday, Senate negotiators reached a deal on an infrastructure package that includes billions in new funding, including more money to connect every household to high-speed broadband, according to the White House. The White House sent out a press release Wednesday outlining what’s included in the bill, focusing on “hard” infrastructure issues like roads, bridges, EV charging, public transit, and high-speed broadband. Specifically, the package includes a $65 billion “investment ensuring every American has access to reliable high-speed internet,” according to the White House. It further stated companies that receive this funding will be required to offer “low-cost affordable” internet plans to consumers. “The key factor is unserved and underserved residents and Natchitoches Parish qualifies,” he said. “It is important that he money is used to its full potential, and I want to see it right here.”

The project will not only lay new cable to those that do not have internet, it will upgrade those still utilizing copper wire. EpicTouch representatives said they would put four crews on the ground in addition to contract labor to better cover the parish quickly with initial crews in the Goldonna/Ashland and Marthaville/ Provencal areas.

The construction phase is estimated to take at least 24 months. They will lay the underground cable then install the fiber optics into home router boxes as they go. Homeowners would be responsible for opting in as well as monthly subscription fees. Homeowners that do not opt in will not get cables run from the main lines to their homes. The project could start as early as October. Long stated broadband would also be a “game changer” in agriculture, which comprises a majority of the parish economy.

“We could make Natchitoches a model for agriculture and create the prototype. It (broadband) will bring industry and enhance public safety,” he said.

Bernard said the housing market would also benefit. “Home buying has gone from the size of the rooms and back yard to do you have high speed internet,” he said. “Don’t look back in 10 years and wish we had done this now.”

Realtor Janice Bolton, who also represents Elevate Louisiana, a group of professional women seeking to better the state, said she actually lost a very large home sale due to the lack of broadband connectivity. Elevate La. has a focus on broadband in the state.

EpicTouch business sales manager Chris Lee said other parishes they serve are contacting them. “We’ve committed to Natchitoches first,” he said. “So we can’t do it all at the same time. They’re in line.”

 

What is broadband?

•According to the FCC, the definition of broadband internet is a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

•Fiber optics carry data using pulses of light through strands of fiber at the fastest speeds.

What is DSL?

•Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) transmits data over traditional copper phone lines.

What is bandwidth?

•The maximum amount of data transmitted over an internet connection in a given amount of time.