Natchitoches Parish broadband rollout delayed amid uncertainty over funding

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Nathan Wilson | Reporter

Residents of rural Natchitoches Parish could find themselves waiting for broadband service as communities across the state scramble to receive funding.
The Natchitoches Parish School Board (NPSB) is awaiting news of whether it will receive grants in the amount of $8 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIC) or $4.77 million from the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). Delays in the award process have left school board officials unsure whether their partnership with telecom provider EpicTouch will receive funding to extend broadband access to students across the parish.
One factor complicating the process is the school board is disallowed from receiving duplicate funding for the same project. Directing grant awards to replace existing funding for a project is known as supplanting and is a violation of the terms of the grants involved. Concerns over a possible supplanting violation caused EpicTouch to shy away from applying for the first round of Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband opportunities (GUMBO) grant funding administered by ConnectLA.

This article published in the March 17, 2022, print edition

GUMBO grant funding is specifically designated for expanding broadband connectivity, but the possibility of a dual award and the accompanying supplanting violation led ConnectLA to advise parish officials to refrain from applying until the NTIC and ECF awards were announced. Now, the application deadline for the first round of GUMBO funds has passed and NPSB is still waiting to learn whether their broadband partnership with EpicTouch will receive NTIC or ECF funding.
Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of ConnectLA, addressed the disappointing news by emphasizing that total GUMBO funding is limited. “We were substantially oversubscribed,” he said. He added the GUMBO grant process is competitive, and there is no guarantee that funding will be awarded to broadband expansion projects in Natchitoches.
Three companies did apply for GUMBO funding to support broadband expansion projects in Natchitoches Parish representing Altice, Bellsouth and Nextlink.
AT&T applied on behalf of its affiliate, Bellsouth, for broadband expansion that would upgrade their current network in partnership with the city of Natchitoches to create a fully fiber network. Information provided within their proposal indicates that the project would benefit a projected 383 households at a cost of $2.1 million. The proposal projects prices for consumers and speeds ranging from $60 per month for 300 Mbps to $85 for 940 Mbps.
CSC Holdings, LLC (Altice) requested funds for upgrades to its Suddenlink network. Improvements are projected to serve 762 households at a cost of $3.3 million. The proposal suggests prices and speeds ranging from $29.99 monthly for subscribers for 100 Mbps to $79.99 for 1,000 Mbps. The grant application includes a reference to a letter of support from the Natchitoches Parish Police Jury suggesting that parts of their proposal were originally planned more than a decade ago.
AMG Technology Investment Group applied to upgrade its NextLink service. Unlike the other two applicants, Nextlink uses a fixed wireless network system that combines communication towers with existing broadband networks the company leases from other providers. Information within the grant application anticipates offering service to 12,400 households at cost of $1.5 million. The proposal projects speeds and consumer prices ranging from $89.95 monthly for 100 Mbps to $169.95 for 500 Mbps.
Iyengar commented on another option: communities can create their own broadband networks. He noted there is a process cities must follow, starting with a feasibility study and ultimately leading to a referendum. “I tell people, there is nothing in the law that says you can’t do it. You just have to follow certain steps,” he said.
The Mansfield City Council authorized a feasibility study in Oct 2021 to recommend whether to build a community broadband network after residents experienced years of stagnant internet access. Investing in a municipal broadband network faces difficulty because of up front costs and opposition from established providers. Mansfield City Clerk Marvin Jackson described the opportunity, “We’re just trying to do the best we can in the interests of the citizens of Mansfield,” he said. “What the survey is trying to do now, is see if they’ve got it already, are they satisfied with it, is it reliable, is it affordable?”
Lafayette became the first city in Louisiana to establish a municipal broadband network in 2009. As an early adopter, Lafayette became a political battleground with residents reporting phone calls suggesting outlandish scenarios such as rationing of internet access similar to water conservation measures implemented during periods of drought. Today the network offers broadband speeds of up to 10,000 Mbps and is exploring opportunities to expand service to nearby communities. The LUS network reported net income of $7.2 million in its 2021 annual report.