La. Rep. Mike Johnson

Louisiana state Rep. Mike Johnson listens to testimony during a House and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting on Sept. 30, 2020.

Louisiana passed extensive legislation the past two sessions to help bridge the digital divide, including a plan to auction off valuable communications spectrum for broadband access.

Act 237, which tasks the recently created Office of Broadband and Connectivity with supervising an auction of parts of the 4.9GHz band, passed the Louisiana Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted last year to allow every state to lease some of this spectrum to help expand broadband development.

“This is an opportunity that you nor I can afford to miss for our citizens, and we have sought and will continue to seek ways to try and find ways to make this perfect,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Rapides, the Daily Advertiser reported.

A state task force recommended to the Louisiana Legislature that 10 percent of the 50 megahertz allocated toward the effort be kept for public safety use. The other 45 MHz should be auctioned off in blocks to businesses and internet service providers, the task force suggested.

Eric Peterson, director of policy at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) that spirits are high in the state that lawmakers are working to increase broadband access in a smart way.

“People are pretty excited to have the Office of Broadband focused on that,” he said.

That office began operating this spring, and one of its first goals is to help shepherd portions of the state’s $5 billion in COVID-19 relief funding to the proper areas to expand rural broadband.

In addition, 13 providers in Louisiana will receive $342 million from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to connect unserved areas.

The state also established a Broadband for Everyone in Louisiana initiative that set a goal of broadband speeds for all residents as set by the FCC at 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, scalable to up to 100 Mbps/100Mbps by 2029.

Louisiana Illuminator reported that about 25 percent of state households have no internet. Forty-two percent of households lack broadband.

Last year, the state Legislature passed SB10, which eased private provider access to infrastructure owned by electric cooperatives. Louisiana also established a dig once policy, which requires public and private workers to coordinate with local governments on laying fiber or conduit when ground is broken on public rights-of-way, making it less costly to implement future broadband projects.

“People realize how bad it is and they want to take down as many barriers to deployment as possible,” Peterson told TPA.

During a recent online forum hosted by the Pelican Institute, former FCC chairman Ajit Pai urged state officials to work with the FCC to help develop better broadband maps so that unserved areas can more accurately be determined. Former President Trump signed into law last year an act that has the goal of improving the mapping processes for internet access across the country, TPA previously reported.

“It’s important for Louisiana and the agency to work closely together to make sure that the dollars you’re about to get are stretched as far as they possibly can be,” Pai said.

Johnny Kampis is a senior fellow and investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.