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DISTRICT 21 Rep. C. Travis Johnson discusses broadband during a meeting in Vidalia on Monday. (Photo by Joe Curtis)

Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO) program launched grant applications Nov. 1 with an aim to “eliminate the digital divide by 2029,” said Veneeth Iyengar, ConnectLa executive director.

Speaking with elected officials and community leaders in Vidalia on Monday, Iyengar said his staff was moving quickly to address the lack of quality broadband in northeast Louisiana.

District 21` Rep. C. Travis Johnson said at the meeting that the area he represents needs broadband.

“We need to become more desirable (to internet providers),” Johnson said. “We need to look at this on a regional basis. We need to take advantage of this and get broadband that people can afford.”

Johnson’s district runs along the Mississippi River through portions of Catahoula, Concordia, East Carroll, Madison and Tensas parishes.

Legislators established the GUMBO grant program that would be administered by ConnectLa, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity. GUMBO’s purpose was to use more than $180 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to provide broadband and internet access to 400,000 Louisiana households.

With GUMBO, internet providers will apply for funding, while municipal and parish governments offer support through matching funds or infrastructure.

Louisiana’s digital divide is made up of three chasm’s: access, affordability and digital literacy, Iyengar said.

According to ConnectLa data, 13,000 Franklin Parish residents, 7,000 Catahoula Parish residents, 4,600 Concordia Parish residents and 4,300 Tensas Parish residents are unserved concerning broadband service.

Federal government defines broadband as transmission speeds of at least 25:3 Mbps. Broadband speeds are measured in 'megabits per second', often shortened to Mb Mbits p/s or Mbps. Bits are tiny units of data, with a megabit representing a million of them. Higher the number of Mbps (megabits per second) a person has, the speedier their online activity should be.

With many households in northeast Louisiana living below or near the poverty level, affordability is important.

Broadband internet service packages on average cost between $50 and $75 per month, not including cable or phone service.

“What good is broadband, if the people can’t afford it,” Iyengar said. “We have to make it affordable.”

Third and final chasm of the digital divide is digital literacy.

“It’s likely you’ve had a friend or family member ask you to help them pay a bill online, schedule a tele health visit or search for a job,” Iyengar said. “To this day, some people do not understand how to turn on a computer. As is evident, digital literacy can mean several things depending on a person’s experience with computers and technology.”

According to Iyengar, grant funds are going to spur more work for Louisiana while calling on community colleges to train potential employees.

“There are going to be a lot of construction jobs, lot of maintenance jobs, lot of customer service jobs,” Ivengar said. “These are not minimum wage jobs. Some of these jobs pay $25 or $30 an hour. We are encouraging companies to partner with the local community college to provide a workforce development plan.”

Even though GUMBO funds are for providers, local and parish governments have ways to help, Ivengar said.

“First, they can write letters of endorsement for applications,” he said. “You can use ARPA funding to serve as local match, but it is not required. Third is in-kind matches. In-kind is assets such as water towers and buildings. Infrastructure that you and the internet provider can use.”

In Franklin Parish, Volt Broadband LLC and Conexon, if approved, will use Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), to bring local broadband internet service.

RDOF uses $20.4 billion to bring high speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack fast internet ability. RDOF divvies out funds by using two phases of reverse auctions. 

According to Iyengar, an entity cannot use GUMBO funds in RDOF areas, but “have carved out areas not receiving RDOF funds, and use GUMBO for them.”

ConnectLa began accepting GUMBO applications Nov. 1 with a deadline being Dec. 31. Their goal is to make grant funding recommendations mid-March. A third-party group will be evaluating the applications, Iyengar said.

Iyengar was hopeful for the future of broadband access for Louisiana.

“The amount of financial benefits we will get in Louisiana for broadband based on the numbers I see will solve the access problem once and for all,” he said.

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