Juanice Gray | Editor
The internet launched in the late 80s and now, 30-odd years later, it is vital to almost every aspect of life from “Alexa, turn on the lights” to medical care to education and working from home. Still, many in our state, and especially our parish, do not have access to, or cannot afford internet in their homes. In the old days, dial-up networks connected people – eventually. In today’s world, connectivity must be instantaneous and reliable while being affordable.
So what does one do? If you are Gov. John Bel Edwards, you name Veneeth Iyengar as executive director of ConnectLa and task him and his team with eliminating the digital divide by 2029. That takes money and lots of it. Iyengar has eight years to bridge the digital gap and the clock is ticking. He is touring the state to inform governmental bodies and education systems of the need for broadband and how to fund it. Natchitoches Parish, due in a big part to the Natchitoches Parish School Board (NPSB), is ahead of the game.
Their finance director, Lee Waskom, is spearheading the drive for broadband after seeing students sent home with iPads during the pandemic, then finding out they couldn’t utilize them due to lack of access.
“Since we spoke last time, the school board had ESSER 2 and ESSER 3 funding and they removed the option for broadband,” Waskom said. ?We have applied for ECF (Emergency Connectivity Fund) through E-Rate and announced the vendor is EpicTouch with a bid of $4.77 million to light up certain communities.” The board has also applied for $8 million in NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information) funds and can also apply for GUMBO (Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities) funding.
ConnectLA launched the first application period for the GUMBO program Nov. 1. It ends Dec. 31. This $177 million program funds eligible projects, through a competitive grant application process, in economically distressed parishes. Iyengar visited Natchitoches Wednesday, Oct. 27. He outlined the internet speed requirements, timelines and other criteria for companies to apply for GUMBO. These communication companies or co-ops, the only ones eligible to apply will be the ones to lay the lines and connect them to homes.
There are three focus points to eliminating the digital divide: infrastructure/access, affordability and digital literacy. Essentially, everyone must have the hardware (cables) to their home, the ability to pay for the monthly fees which are typically $50-75 monthly and must know how to use it once they have it.
The pandemic catapulted awareness that the internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for online classes, zoom meetings and TeleHealth medicine. Besides the funding mentioned above, EducationSuperHighway (ESH), the national non-profit that connected 47 million students to close the K-12 classroom connectivity gap, launched their new mission, No Home Left Offline, today, Nov. 4. It is geared toward households that have internet access, but can’t afford to connect. In Natchitoches Parish, an estimated 14,000 residents don?t have internet and in the 714 zip code area, 15,000 homes may be eligible for federal assistance programs.
Iyengar said, “Our concern is to ensure the companies that apply, and we grant the money, have the technical and financial capabilities to execute to completion in the time they said they?d make it complete.” Broadband is the hot button topic in the nation as well as the parish, along with ro
ads, water, sewer and the NSU presidential search. A president will be chosen soon, but the others will continue to be an ongoing discussion but since government and other entities are jumping on the broadband bandwagon and pouring money into projects, Natchitoches Parish is first in line to get their fair share.