Bad internet is strangling rural Acadiana, report says, as millions available for upgrades
Slow internet in parts of Acadiana is strangling job growth and education in the region’s rural towns, according to a local study on web access and economic development.
With millions in state and federal funding on the table to address the region’s lack of high-speed internet access, the Acadiana Planning Commission and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette recently produced a report that revealed how bad local connections are and how valuable the web is to the local economy.
The report estimates that nearly 29% of businesses and a third of households in the eight-parish region lack access to reliable internet with basic upload and download speeds based on local surveys and data from the Federal Communications Commission. It is available online at planacadiana.org.
The report confirms a long-known problem for some parts of Acadiana, like Ville Platte, where internet speeds are some of the lowest in the country, APC CEO Monique Boulet said. But it also offers a path to secure state and federal funding to bring usable internet access to those areas in an effort to keep businesses and residents from leaving.
“We had very strong instincts very early on that we were making decisions today that will decide which towns will be here in 10 years,” Boulet said during a gathering of local officials Monday.
“We could pick Abbeville. We could pick Opelousas, we can pick Ville Platte, but whoever we don't invest in today, because of the increase of demand on bandwidth and speeds from our technology development, they will not survive in the future.”
Better internet access helps job loss
But in some parts of the area where access to sufficient internet is more widely available and has kept up with technological demands, that progress has slowed the decline in jobs even accounting for other changes in the local economy like unemployment and oil prices, UL professor and economist Gary Wagner said.
“There is a very strong positive relationship with average business download speeds in Louisiana. And in fact, just to kind of stick a number to it, every 10% increase we get in average business download speed, we get about a 0.6% higher job growth, taking into account all those other things,” Wagner said.
During the five years Wagner studied between 2014 and 2018, the Acadiana region lost 31,000 jobs, but better access to internet at usable speeds spared the region from losing another 20,000 positions, he said.
“I think there's very, very strong evidence here that some of these regions that are struggling can increase the number of jobs and increase standards of living by having faster business download speeds,” he said.
Lack of internet hinders education
Since the major shift to home-based work and learning prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the need for better residential access in Acadiana has been laid bare as well, with 32% of students and one in every 10 teachers unable to access the internet at home, according to professor Stephen Barnes, who leads UL’s Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Public Policy Center.
“These kinds of obstacles can get in the way of maintaining access to education,” Barnes said.
“It's not just the students, even amongst teachers, one in 10 teachers did not have internet access, or computer access to be able to teach virtually during the pandemic,” he added.
Underserved areas can struggle to take advantage of help
Limitations to internet access in Acadiana don’t stop at a lack of infrastructure, as Louisiana’s Executive Director of Broadband Development Veneeth Iyengar pointed out Monday.
Iyengar noted that over 140,000 households in Louisiana have applied for a federal program that offers $50 a month for internet access to low-income families, one of the highest per capita uses of the program in the country.
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“We have a big affordability challenge in Louisiana. We have 43.6% of folks that lack the ability, due to structural poverty issues, that can't afford it. And so that's an issue that we have to rapidly solve,” he said.
Iyengar is leading the state’s new GUMBO grant program that will provide funds to internet providers from a $180 million pool of federal money to expand high-speed internet access in rural and underserved areas over the next few years.
The first half of those funds will be awarded next spring, Iyengar said, and the second half is planned to go out before the end of December 2024.
While local governments are encouraged to partner with private internet providers to help fund projects to bring reliable internet to underserved areas, the GUMBO grants don’t actually require local governments to participate, meaning some companies may be able to get funding without help from the cities and parishes where they plan to build.
But the small size of municipalities in Acadiana’s rural areas has their leaders concerned they may not see the full benefits of the program, as town of Washington Mayor Dwight Landreneau explained Tuesday.
“Weak and underserved communities become more underserved because we can't take advantage of the monies that are out there,” Landreneau said.
“That's the same thing I see in the town of Washington, and our friends from Port Barre and Grand Prairie and we have Melville, Leonville and Arnaudville. All these small communities are in need of these types of advances in technology, but we can't participate because we don't have the match to even you put up our name in the hat,” he added.
Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine, whose town has among the worst internet speeds in the country, said that even at City Hall, communications options are unreliable and slim.
“Situations like that may seem tedious, but in a small community, that is huge, especially when you can’t get through to (them),” she said.
Vidrine said Tuesday it was too early to say what her town’s plan for getting a piece of those grant funds will be, but that she is optimistic about the potential the grant funds have to save Ville Platte from further decline.
“We have hope now that we will be a part of the future,” she said. “Before, we were falling through the cracks with these big, big private companies, but now with all this grant money that's out there, it puts us at the head of the line.”
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