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French Louisiana Loses Jobs, Residents With Slow Broadband

For many parishes in the Acadiana region, getting adequate Internet speeds is a challenge that has impacted business and residential growth. In some parishes, 1 in 3 homes do not have any broadband access.

(TNS) — Lisa Deen used hacks she picked up from her 22 years as a business teacher when she was trying to figure out why her Internet was so slow at her Ville Platte, La., gift shop.

After she switched providers from AT&T to CenturyLink, she began hard-wiring the devices at her business, Tincy's Corner, which is just a block south of Main Street in a modest building she's been in for about three years now. Some days are good, she said, but there are still days when downloading an image from a customer can take up to 30 minutes.

That is, she points out, if everything is working right.

"They'll tell you to unplug your system or reboot your modem, but that doesn't help the situation," she said. "A lot of the blame gets put on, 'Well, you've got five or six different computers.' Yeah, because I need them. It's the infrastructure in this town that is not there for the technology needs of local businesses to be able to operate efficiently. You would think that this day and age that technology and Internet and all that would not be as much a problem, but it is, unfortunately."

And unfortunately for Deen and many others in Ville Platte in this heightened era of pandemic-era Internet use including virtual schooling and Zoom calls, they're home to the fifth-slowest Internet speed in the country, according to one website's report in 2019. The more people you speak with in the Evangeline Parish city that's one of the poorest municipalities in the country, the more tales you'll hear of people going to whatever lengths necessary in order to get a steady connection.

According to a survey on broadband speeds conducted by the Acadiana Planning Commission, Evangeline Parish has the slowest median upload speed (1.18 mbps) and the second-slowest median download speed (10.06 mbps) in Acadiana. Both are less than half of the FCC's definition of broadband.

Across the street from Deen's business, Maggie Eades is battling that issue several times a day at her antique shop and cafe, Cottage Couture. Between five and 10 times a day, the system goes down while trying to process a purchase, she said. Twice they replaced the modem, and the provider has even worked on the lines outside.

Eades has similar luck with a rental property just outside the city that she owns: "The connection is so bad it barely works."

"Luckily we are a small town, and they (the customers) know us and we know them, and we say, 'Come back later or pay over the phone,'" Eades said of her business. "It's still in the system whenever it says there's no connection. When the Internet comes back on, it'll pick it up. At this point, I don't really know what I can do. A lot of people have just started using cash or checks."

The issues in Evangeline Parish are similar to those in St. Landry and Acadia parishes, according to the Acadiana Broadband Assessment 2021, a joint effort by the APC and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Public Policy Center. Acadiana, much like the state, is home to Internet "haves and have-nots," the report indicated, with some users in the Lafayette area who are with LUS Fiber having nearly six times the download speed of users in Acadia Parish.

Haves and Have-Nots

The Acadiana Planning Commission conducted a broadband speed test earlier this year. Here are the median download and upload speeds by parish:

Download (mbps)

Lafayette 47.87

St. Martin 45.60

Vermilion 27.95

Iberia 26.70

St. Landry 17.68

Evangeline 10.06

Acadia 8.66

Upload (mpbs)

Lafayette 10.74

St. Martin 9.88

Iberia 7.00

St. Landry 5.44

Vermilion 3.32

Acadia 1.96

Evangeline 1.18

Availability is a similar issue. Over 1 out of every 3 homes St. Landry and Evangeline parishes has no broadband access, more than twice that of in Lafayette Parish. In Acadia Parish, nearly a fourth of all businesses are located in census blocks where speeds are so slow they are classified as unserved.

Planning commission officials along with Veneeth Iyengar, state executive director for broadband, will discuss the report's findings and the state's efforts to expand broadband access at 10 a.m. Monday at the LITE Center.

"For me, it's about small businesses and keeping them and keeping the money flowing," said Amy Thibodeaux, director of the Acadia Parish Chamber of Commerce. "There's a whole educational piece on top of that. It (COVID-19) has wholly escalated the need for consistent broadband. It's not life or death, but it's sink or swim for sure. It's tough in rural Louisiana. As we're moving toward telehealth and online education, we need Internet. In some cases, we have nothing."

The study revealed the area's hot spots and black holes but also the power of what a high-speed Internet service can do for a community, APC CEO Monique Boulet said. Lack of access to broadband is furthering the migration from the state's rural areas, most of which reported population losses in the 2020 census released last month.

About 31,000 jobs were lost between 2014 and 2018 because of poor access to broadband, the report indicated.

In Lafayette, with municipal provider LUS Fiber, having fiber optic networks has made the area more attractive to tech companies such as CGI and SchoolMint. But other areas, particularly the downtown areas in smaller cities like Crowley, broadband access is poor.

Thibodeaux would agree. When she was hosting virtual Rotary Club meetings, she would have to leave her office next to the courthouse and go home to get a reliable connection.

"It's actually surprising how big those black holes are," said Chad LaCombe, development planner with the APC. "You think downtown Crowley with its redeveloped Main Street would have this service. From what we've heard and have the data for is it really doesn't. When service providers — the big guys — started rolling out their services, they went to the new subdivisions, and that's where their lines are because it's easier and cheaper to do. So you're leaving our main commercial centers out."

The APC is using the report as a lift-off point to upgrade the infrastructure in Acadiana with the goal of installing fiber optic cable to the home. Fiber, the report indicates, provides the highest bandwidth available and is the modern standard for broadband.

The planning commission lobbied the state Legislature to allow LUS Fiber, as a public utility, to receive federal grant funding to expand broadband access through the American Rescue Plan Act as part of the Granting Underserved Municipalities Opportunities Act.

Some private providers have been installed in some rural areas in Acadiana, including one in the Acadia Parish communities of Mermentau, Midland and Estherwood, said Chance Henry, president of the Acadia Parish Police Jury.

"The planning commission put it on the table for us and kind of educated all the parish presidents," Henry said. "I think the parish presidents agree fiber is a must. Our main goal in Acadia Parish is to have fiber to the home. We want fiber."

Boulet's office is also seeking grant funding to have LUS Fiber install fiber in Ville Platte, a move that in a perfect scenario could be a test case for how efficient broadband can spur economic development and help eradicate poverty in the city in which, according to the United Way's 2020 ALICE Report, 79 percent of households either living in poverty or qualify as ALICE ( Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and only 36 percent of residents in Evangeline Parish were classified as full-time workers.

Once the city is equipped with fiber, Boulet said, the next step could be holding workshops with residents to teach people how to start a home-based e-commerce business as a side hustle. Those side hustles, over time, could turn into full-time businesses that create jobs.

"Get ready," she said. "That digital IQ, we've got to jack that up, which won't be hard. They're good people. They're just poor and they're isolated. They're off the highway, and they have no resources.

"They've been begging for a four-laned highway for all these years. (Years ago) the community objected to the interstate and didn't want all those hitchhikers on the highway. That's what (secretary) Donald (Bergeron) tells them: 'We won't need a four-lane highway if we get fiber. That will be our four-lane highway.'"

(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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