Broadband funding coming at dial up speed

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Carolyn Roy | News Editor
While there has been a delay in the awarding of federal money to make high speed Internet available to students and teachers in Natchitoches Parish, the School Board’s Director of Finance Lee Waskom believes that money could be received any day.
The original money that was set aside for the project last July, to run fiber optic cable throughout the parish to provide broadband access to students, was removed from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) due to federal funding availability.

This article published in the Jan. 6, 2022, print edition

Because of that, the School Board applied for a National Telecommunications and Information Administration grant for $7.9 million and an Emergency Connectivity Fund grant (part of the E-Rate Program) for $4.7 million, or nearly $13 million. Approval was not received in November as expected but Waskom said he believes it will come at any time.
Waskom said there are three phases to the installation of the Internet service.
•Phase I is to get the service to 95 percent of students and teachers. That is the immediate priority of the School Board. That will cost approximately $8 million and is expected in the first round of funding.
•Phase II is to get the broadband accessibility to the remaining 5 percent of students and teachers in the most rural areas. That 5 percent will cost an additional $12 million due to the remote nature of the households.
•Phase III is to make high speed internet service available to everyone in the parish who wants it. That will cost a total of $30 million. “We don’t want to leave anyone out,” Waskom said. “Mine and (Superintendent) Dr. Grant Eloi’s goal is to get high speed Internet to everyone who wants it.”
A contract with EpicTouch to install the infrastructure is still in play.
“We just need the money and we can start as soon as we get it,” Waskom said.
Once the money is received, it should take two and one-half years to get the infrastructure installed for the first 95 percent.
It will take four years to get 100 percent accessibility.
Waskom said the School Board is also planning to apply for Round 2 funding through the Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities, or GUMBO program. GUMBO has $177 million to spend on increasing broadband access to unserved communities in Louisiana. “We still plan on every bit of this project happening,” said Waskom. “We just have to wait right now.”