(TNS) — Sandra Castille was attending a master’s program virtually during the COVID pandemic. As a teacher at Port Barre High School, she was studying for a new administrative position that was opening. She would get the job if she completed her master’s degree. But she couldn’t afford her internet. Her husband was out of work, and on a St. Landry Parish teacher’s salary, the $160 a month satellite internet became a huge burden, so she cut it.
“I had straight A’s with three kids, working on my master’s degree, knowing an administrative assistant was opening up last year,” Castille said, “I would have been finished…I couldn’t get the position last year.”
Castille later would finish her degree and is starting her new position as an administrative assistant this school year. But the delay, prompted by steep internet prices, has cost her.
“That’s about a $5,000 loss because that’s the bump in salary for that position. So, I lost that, $5,000,” Castille said.
While larger city residents may take for granted the access to high speed fiber internet, Castille and other residents of rural towns and villages in South Louisiana have long been faced with outdated and overpriced internet.
Change is coming, but delays have frustrated rural residents and those on the ground trying to implement internet expansion programs. The federal government awarded Louisiana $1.36 billion over the next five years for its expansion of high-speed internet and an additional $250 million through Louisiana’s GUMBO grant.
However, the GUMBO program has lagged since its initial round of grants in the summer of 2022. Projects across the state have been bogged down with appeals by companies large and small looking for a piece of the funding.
Louisiana introduced GUMBO 2.0 in an effort to limit company challenges. The state will have a 90-day challenge process before the grant round. The challenges will be reviewed by a third party.
Louisiana ranks 46th in the nation when it comes to access to internet, according to a report from Broadbandnow. To put that into perspective, seven in 10 Louisianians do not have access to affordable internet, which Broadbandnow defined as below $60. Only 37% have access to fiber internet and one in 10 are not able to achieve at least 25Mbps download, which is slow.
St. Landry Parish was recently awarded a $1.5 million GUMBO grant toward $3.5 million worth of projects with an additional $30 million in National Telecommunications and Information Administration funding.
Castille’s town of Krotz Springs, through GUMBO grants, is adding fiber to the southern edge of town, while the USDA’s ReConnect and FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund are servicing the north and south of the municipality.
Residents of Krotz Springs, like those in other rural towns, have been limited to dial-up and satellite internet for decades. In addition, the lack of competition has allowed sole service providers to increase prices.
“You know how many times at 11 o’clock at night I loaded my babies in the car because HughesNet wasn’t working at my house? So, I drove them to the McDonald’s parking lot in Port Barre to finish my work,” Castille said.
COVID, kids on the margin and connection
The COVID pandemic was a shock to nearly every school system in the country. The necessary transition into virtual learning required school boards to act quickly.
For rural schools such as Port Barre High, connecting students to teachers was a struggle, Castille said.
“Virtual learning was borderline impossible,” she said. “They knew a lot of us didn’t have good internet. They let us comes into the school to do our virtual teaching but then our students didn’t have virtual learning.”
Up to a month after the lockdown in 2020, her school was still having issues conducting virtual instruction. The fumble meant at-risk students with no access to the internet at home were more likely to fall through the cracks. She began to see full virtual classes dwindle to only a handful of students.
“We went two weeks to a month and after the first week, we had lost those at-risk kids already. Especially the ones that were using the hotspot because they were kids with the most problems and the least amount of help. “
The St. Landry Parish School Board gave students wireless hotspots. The hotspots are boxes that provide wireless internet through cellular signals. But if you live in an area that has a weak cell signal or a home with a metal roof, connection can be lost easily.
School buildings in St. Landry Parish themselves do not have issues with internet access, said Byron Wimberly, supervisor of technology at St. Landry Parish School Board. Their infrastructure is provided through governmental funding. The school board has filed application to expand broadband to areas such as Melville and Palmetto.
For students outside the immediate area of the school, the school board could do little.
“The federal [government] has noticed [digital inequity] and that’s why they’re expanding. During COVID, we didn’t have the backbone in our parish to get access to all our students,” Wimberly said.
“We pretty much set them up to fail because some did not have internet. This is going to help us in the long run for everything. Kids will have access to information whenever they are home,” Bellard said.
Small business, competition and visibility
The lack of fiber internet also inhibits business growth in rural communities, Ryan Meche, LUS Fiber’s director, said.
“There’s areas in Evangeline Parish with internet connection so slow, they can’t even run a credit card,” Meche said.
LUS is not expanding into St. Landry Parish but is expanding to other rural areas of Acadiana. Meche said he knows these areas are in desperate need of investment.
However, a massive project like this requires federal and state spending. In a densely populated area, running electricity or, in this case, the internet makes economic sense. Houses are close together, making them easier to connect and the population can support the massive cost of the infrastructure. In a rural area, houses can be hundreds of yards or even miles away from one another, making investment cost prohibitive without government funding.
Bill Rodier, executive director of St. Landry Parish Economic Development, said he believes internet to be a basic commodity, like water and electricity. Without it, St. Landry Parish cannot compete with urban parishes like Lafayette. Imagine competing with a city when yours does not have electricity.
“If we don’t get [highspeed internet] in any area, especially in the rural areas, we’re never going to reach the potential we need,” Rodier said.
Rodier, Meche and Parish President Jessie Bellard said new service providers will make high-speed internet more affordable for St. Landry customers. Castille in Krotz Spring may be finally able to ditch her $160 satellite internet for something better that fits into her family’s budget.
“The ability of homeowners and business to have access to high-speed internet is just a game changer,” Bellard said.
There’s no proof yet whether internet prices will drop, but from an economic perspective, Rodier said, more competition should mean lower prices. Companies must have incentives for a customer to switch over, the easiest way to do so is to charge less for your product or service.
With competition also comes better overall service, Meche said. LUS plans to provide customer service and technical teams specifically for these rural communities that can sometimes be ignored by service providers.
In previous reporting, Sunset residents were left without internet for five days after an underground cable was struck. The company, Brightspeed, did not tell the contractor their lines were buried in the area and possibly didn’t even know those lines were there. Meche said LUS plans to provide quick and reliable service when issues arise.
“We want to engross ourselves in these communities,” Meche said.
Lack of high-speed internet access can also harm an area’s visibility for future investment, Meche said. When companies begin a plan to relocate, one of the things they look for is whether these cities have fiber internet. It’s part of the reason Lafayette has been home to many company relocations, Meche said. When SchoolNet relocated to Lafayette, they told Meche if the city did not have fiber, they would not have come here.
“Fiber won’t be the sole reason for a business to enter an area, but lack of fiber will keep business from entering,” Meche said.
All these projects take time, Phase one of GUMBO Projects is expected to be completed within six months to two years. While federal programs have longer timelines. The second round of GUMBO grants will be under direction from the state government and most likely focus on more underserved communities.
Castille hopes this will finally bring an end to the digital divide in Louisiana.
“It equitable,” Castille said, “it’s just as unfair not to provide phone service out to an area as it is with the internet. Internet’s the new phone service.”
© 2023 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.