FILE - Broadband internet, ethernet, high-speed internet

The federal government plans to spend more than $20 billion to help bring broadband internet to rural areas, and Louisiana officials want to make sure their state doesn’t miss out.

“Our people are hungry for this,” said state Sen. Beth Mizell, a Republican from rural Washington Parish. “Shame on us if we let a pot of money go by and we don’t have a spoon to take some out for Louisiana.”

The Federal Communications Commission established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to distribute $20.4 billion over 10 years to places with limited or no broadband access. The money will be awarded in two rounds, with the $16 billion first round targeting areas completely lacking broadband.

Louisiana has thousands of places that could be eligible, officials say. The Louisiana Public Service Commission will call for applications and presentations from broadband providers interested in participating in the federal program, said Brandon Frey with the PSC during Thursday's meeting of the state’s Broadband High-Speed Internet Service Task Force.

The basic idea is that the federal government will subsidize projects that bring high-speed internet service to places where it might not be economically feasible otherwise. But once the infrastructure is installed, there still needs to be a sustainable funding source to maintain the service. And the service needs to be available at a price consumers are willing to pay, task force members said.

Mizell suggested electric cooperatives – nonprofit companies that deliver electricity to members – might play a similar role as in the 1930s when they brought electricity to rural areas in the South. She pointed to new legislation in Mississippi allowing electric co-ops to provide high-speed internet.

Louisiana does not ban electricity co-ops from getting into the internet business, although they need permission from state regulators to take on debt. Jeff Arnold, who leads the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, said co-ops generally are reluctant to go into debt, though he suggested new cooperative endeavors focused on broadband might be established to avoid placing debt on existing members.

And while in some cases existing electricity infrastructure might be used for internet, in other cases new rights of way might need to be acquired, members said. Buck Vandersteen of the Louisiana Forestry Association said it was important to make sure property owners are in the loop about how to distribute broadband.

Several speakers at Thursday’s meeting discussed the challenges created by a lack of reliable high-speed internet. Representatives of Ochsner Health System said it limits the reach of their digital medicine efforts, which they said are especially useful for treating chronic conditions like hypertension.

State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, described parents driving their children to internet hot spots to do homework. Several people said poor or nonexistent internet service limits business development in their areas.

And some people just don’t want to live where they can’t get high-speed internet.

“Quality of life is a big part of that,” Johnson said.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.