Gov. John Bel Edwards announced $130 million in grants last week to create more affordable and accessible internet services for more than 66,000 households and businesses in 50 parishes.
The grants are funded through the American Rescue Plan and coordinated by the state’s Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities program.
"We learned a great deal from the pandemic about how critical it is to have high-speed internet in Louisiana," Edwards said on Monday. "With today's announcement we are one step closer to reaching our goal of eliminating the digital divide in the next seven years. However, we are not just stopping here. We have another $43 million in funds from the ARP we will award by October, and we are expecting an additional significant amount of federal funds from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that will be awarded next year to continue to address access, affordability and literacy."
The $130 million in grants announced Monday represent the bulk of the $176 million in broadband funding through the American Rescue Plan. Edwards issued an executive order in 2019 to create the Broadband for Everyone Louisiana Commission to work toward eliminating the so-called digital divide by 2029.
The next year, Edwards created the Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity, ConnectLA, led by Executive Director Veneeth Iyengar, to work with other state agencies to address an estimated 462,000 Louisianans who lack basic digital literacy skills.
"Today culminates all of the hard work that our stakeholders — teacher, parents, small business owners, public safety, parish officials etc. — have given towards addressing the digital divide," said Iyengar. "These investments will not only address the access issues but will create hundreds and thousands of good paying jobs that will impact people's trajectory in their communities."
ConnectLA worked with the Louisiana Board of Regents, Department of Education and state library system to create Digital Literacy & Inclusion Pilot programs in urban and rural library branches in five parishes: East Carroll, Jefferson, Livingston, Rapides and West Feliciana.
The aim is to increase access to high-speed internet while also improving computer and internet literacy for locals.
Each site is set to receive $20,000 to assess community needs for digital literacy, and to provide skills assessments, online learning and digital skill building. The work will be performed by a team of 55 librarians and staff dubbed Digital Navigators, who completed 11 hours of training through the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Northstar Digital Literacy, according to an Edwards statement.
"Erasing Louisiana's digital divide requires us to pair digital learning opportunities with improved connectivity and affordability," said Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana commissioner of higher education. "We are pleased to launch these pilot programs in local libraries supported by local digital navigators because we believe empowering communities is key to strengthening digital literacy."
State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle celebrated last week’s announcement.
"The last few years have shown us how essential good, high-speed internet is for education," said Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat from Monroe. "Combined with the efforts to better fund all levels of education in the state, this investment will have huge impacts on our learning outcomes."
"This is a huge win for the people of rural Louisiana," said Rep. Chris Turner, a Republican from Ruston, and chair of the Legislative Rural Caucus. "From economic development to educational opportunities — this investment will transform our state. I applaud the Governor and my colleagues in the Legislature for this outstanding work."