Louisiana First State to Get BEAD Planning Funds as State GUMBO Grants Get Messy

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced earlier this week that Louisiana will be the first state in the nation to receive federal grant planning funds to help states prepare for the deployment of high-speed Internet infrastructure and digital skills training under the Biden Administration’s “Internet for All” initiative.

Enabled by last year's passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the $2.9 million heading to the Pelican State is from the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program and the Digital Equity Act (DEA) – a development Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said was a signal that “the Internet for All initiative is on track and on schedule.”

Over the coming weeks, every state and territory will have funding in hand as they begin to build grant-making capacity, assess their unique needs, and engage with diverse stakeholders to make sure that no one is left behind. My thanks go to Governor Edwards and his team; Louisiana was among the first to sign onto Internet for All and to apply for funding, and I know they’re ready to get to work for the people of Louisiana.  

According to NTIA’s press announcement, $2 million of the planning funds being allocated to Louisiana come from the BEAD program and will help the state:

  • Identify unserved and underserved locations
  • Support outreach to diverse stakeholders across the state
  • Train employees administering the state’s broadband program
  • Assist with asset mapping to track broadband adoption, affordability, equity, access and deployment activities
  • Survey unserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to adoption 
  • Ramp up efforts to support local coordination at the local and regional levels 

The other $900,000 will come from the Digital Equity Act, also passed as part of IIJA. That money will fund Louisiana’s development of a statewide Digital Equity Plan; hire a Digital Equity/Inclusion Specialist to create and execute the state’s digital equity strategy; foster partnerships with a consortium of higher education institutions; and help the state coordinate with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) in providing advice and best practices.  

BEAD ‘On Schedule’ While East Carroll Parish on Hold

While the BEAD program may be “on track and on schedule,” Louisiana’s Connect LA GUMBO grant program – funded with federal American Rescue Plan dollars and pending funds from the BEAD program – is anything but on track and on schedule, at least not in the East Carroll Parish region.

As we reported here, Louisiana’s broadband deployment grant program, known as GUMBO (Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities) had awarded a $4 million grant to Conexon to bring fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service to over 2,500 households in East Carroll Parish, a rural region in the northeast part of the state. However, the monopoly cable provider who operates in the region – Sparklight (formerly known as Cable One) – filed a challenge to the grant, claiming the cable company already serves the region. The challenge brought the Conexon project to a halt on the same day construction was set to begin.

The delay has community residents and some state lawmakers frustrated as the state’s Division of Administration tries to figure out if the challenge has any real merit.

Petitioning State to Heat Up GUMBO Grant Process

In the days since Sparklight’s last-minute challenge, East Carroll Parish residents, eager for the Conexon project to move forward, are speaking out.

“Existing Internet operators don’t want to serve rural areas,” East Carroll resident Wanda Manning told the Shreveport Times. “They say it doesn’t make money. And here’s the crazy part: They don’t want anyone else to serve these areas either.”

They have also sent a petition letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state’s Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.

The petition letter – organized by Delta Interfaith, a coalition of congregations and community-based organizations in the Louisiana Delta pushing for better broadband – implores the governor and the Commission of Administration adjudicating the Sparklight challenge to “honor (the state’s) commitment to award Conexon Connect a $4 million GUMBO grant to build a world-class fiber network to connect our community.” The letter goes on to say:

An 11th-hour attempt by incumbent provider Sparklight puts this network and your promise at risk. We have sadly had to postpone our launch celebration due to take place this Thursday, August 25th in Lake Providence.

Without your intervention, at best Sparklight’s tactics will delay the network. At worst, they could prevent us from building a broadband network fit for the 21st century.

Instead of engaging with our community or filing a protest during the initial application phase, Sparklight waited until the last moment to attempt to thwart months of community organizing to improve our internet. In its protest, Sparklight claims to deliver speeds of 960/50mbps for 2,856 properties in the proposed project area. We have ample evidence to the contrary. These claims have no basis in reality, as documented in our GUMBO application, and represent an effort by a company to protect its market dominance by flexing their powerful bureaucratic muscles.”

Read the entire petition letter here.

The East Carroll Parish project is not the only grant award being challenged. Of the 67 GUMBO grants that have been awarded, 26 are being challenged across the state – a potential troubling trend that could significantly slow down the state’s efforts to “close Louisiana’s digital divide by 2029,” in the words of Gov. Edwards.

Upon receiving news that the NTIA planning grant funds were imminent, Edwards said: “Some of us take access to broadband for granted, but there are still many people who do not have a reliable or affordable connection, especially in the rural parts of our state. If we can connect those communities, we will improve health outcomes, grow our economy, increase access to educational opportunities, and enhance quality of life for so many people.”  

Meanwhile, residents of East Carroll Parish are working to hold the governor and state lawmakers’ feet to the fire to ensure that monopoly providers don’t use the state’s grant challenge process as a way to game the system while leaving unserved and underserved Louisianans on the wrong side of the digital divide for years to come. 

Inline images of Delta Interfaith members in action courtesy of Delta Interfaith