Mark Ballard: Who will finally benefit from good Internet service? Politics provides the answer in Louisiana | National Policy

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Fewer Louisiana residents have high-speed Internet access than almost anywhere else in the country, largely due to politics.

But the state is on track to be nearly fully connected before the end of this decade — largely because of politics.

Work to extend broadband to the 400,000 homes and businesses without adequate internet service began last week and continues this week with the spending of $165 million, so far, of the $177 million allocated to Louisiana by the American rescue plan. Over the next 24 months, people at 88,000 addresses will be able to work remotely, access medical records, find markets, sell goods, do schoolwork and, yes, watch football and movies.

The big boost will come from the roughly $1 billion Louisiana will receive from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a total of $65 billion for broadband.

The IIJA’s $1.2 trillion package was rejected by all but two members of the Louisiana congressional delegation, calling them both “socialists” and “elitists.” Yet contrary to claims that Boston would reap the most benefits, the funding formulas were written in such a way that Louisiana was almost guaranteed to get twice as much money as its population warranted.

Part of the reason is geography. Swamps, marshes and forests isolate many residents and make the extension of necessary infrastructure too costly.

It cost BellSouth Corp. about $47,000 per phone to extend lines to Mink, a settlement of about 15 families 100 miles south of Shreveport, and thus finally provide universal phone service in Louisiana. It was in February 2005.

Another reason is poverty. Nearly 1 in 5 residents of this state are officially designated as poverty-stricken, and half of the state’s residents live in households below the nation’s median income levels.

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For years in the mid-to-late 20th century, New Orleans was known as the “Nickel City” due to how long Democratic state regulators required calls made from public phone booths to cost $5. cents.

In 2011, the last time the federal government offered millions to connect Louisiana to the internet, the money was withdrawn because Governor Bobby Jindal favored private companies by scattering the funds. “This grant called for a heavy-handed approach by the federal government that would have undermined and taken over private companies,” Jindal said at the time.

On October 1, 2021, six of Louisiana’s eight-member congressional delegation wrote a letter saying the Infrastructure Act raised taxes for “a socialist wish list of massive new spending.” The letter was signed by US Senator John N. Kennedy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, as well as US Representatives Garret Graves, Clay Higgins, Julia Letlow and Mike Johnson, all Republicans.

“For broadband, we see a similar result. Unfortunately, the bill gives almost no concrete guarantee that it will help underserved communities, which means that first priority will likely go to places like suburban Boston, not communities like Bastrop, Baker and Buras. . the letter said.

“It will be the exact opposite. A disproportionate share of those dollars will go to rural communities, like in Louisiana, where the market hasn’t connected people to the internet,” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday. “We’re going to get an allocation of formula dollars which is our prorated share of those dollars based on the number of addresses that don’t have Internet access.”

The Federal Communications Commission identifies which addresses have high-speed Internet access and which do not. These maps will be completed in November, and these results will be fed into a funding formula that also includes the cost of building the infrastructure.

The formula was derived during congressional negotiations over the 2,700-plus-page legislation. Republican U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge was in the room. He and U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, were the only members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation to vote for the measure, though voters in Higgins, Letlow and Johnson will receive the bulk of his largesse. in Louisiana.

“Being in the room, my goal was to make sure Louisiana was represented, our needs were taken care of,” Cassidy said Wednesday. “Through this bill, we expect to receive more than $1 billion over the next five years to ensure everyone in Louisiana has access to affordable high-speed internet.”

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