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Louisiana Wants Change So Towns Can Keep Internet, Customers

About one quarter of all Lousianans don’t have any available Internet provider, which impacts business success and growth. State and fed officials are stepping in with hopes to have the entire state connected by 2029.

(TNS) — It’s almost impossible for a business to operate in today’s digital age without a strong, reliable internet connection.

No one knows this more than business owners in Ville Platte, Louisiana. According to a recent study by HighSpeedInternet.com, which ran an analysis of over 2 million internet speed tests, the second-poorest city in the United States also has the fifth-worst internet.

“The internet is so slow over here that we dropped it," said Mindy Soileau, manager of Catoire’s Vintage and Antique Flea Market in downtown Ville Platte. "We don’t even use it anymore. It’s that bad. That means we can’t take cards with or without internet and we lose a lot of business because of that.”

Many businesses in Ville Platte are like Catoire’s, eschewing internet in favor of cash-only policies or using costly 4G phone data to run their business and take credit and debit card sales.

University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor Geoffrey Stewart and his MBA class has worked to help revitalize Ville Platte and Evangeline Parish’s economies for over a year now, and each class has recommended installing better internet connection.

“What we’ve seen in Evangeline Parish over the last two semesters is site selectors for manufacturers are looking for broadband access because it’s as important as rail, water, interstate highway,” Stewart said. “If you think about manufacturers today, a lot of their machinery is connected to the internet, and if you don’t have broadband capabilities, it’s a non-starter for a lot of new plants.”

Ville Platte and Evangeline Parish are not the only areas of Acadiana or the state to be negatively affected by slow internet speeds. About 494,000 people in rural Louisiana do not have access to internet connection capable of running a sophisticated, tech-heavy business operation according to BroadbandNow, a website that helps consumers find and compare service providers in their area.

Stewart said not having reliable, fast internet not only makes it hard to process payments or attract new business but can make completing simple tasks like payroll and paperwork difficult.

About 361,000 Louisiana residents have access to only one provider like Ville Platte and another 254,000 people don’t have any internet provider available, totaling around a quarter of all Louisianians.

Monique Boulet, CEO of the Acadiana Planning Commission, said the broadband internet issue is significant because the vast majority of jobs in the next 20 years will be mostly internet-based, which will create further divides between the cities and the rural areas in the future.

“Broadband really is the next utility," she said. "We need it like we need electricity now. Do we allow our urban centers to really be what’s left of our economic engine or do we allow our towns — where the core of our culture comes from — to thrive as well? We’re at a critical point in time where we have to decide if we all move forward together or do we just let some fall off the map economically.”

But getting broadband internet to those areas is easier said than done, Stewart said. For many private internet companies, there isn’t enough foreseeable return on investment for companies to spend the money building the infrastructure needed.

Yet state and federal government are working fill in that gap. Last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $15.5 million project to expand high-speed internet service to rural areas west of Baton Rouge by laying over 200 miles of fiber optic cable to 2,609 homes, 12 business and 16 farms in Iberville, St. Landry and Pointe Coupee parishes.

The St. Landry Parish improvements will connect the rural areas from Krotz Springs north along the parish line to also include Melville.

In August, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an executive order creating a Broadband for Everyone in Louisiana Commission, which aims to help public and private entities expand broadband internet to the entire state by 2029.

Boulet and Leslie Durham, the governor’s designee to the Delta Regional Authority, have been in communication with the USDA and the Federal Communications Commission to get more federal grants to help. However, there are a lot of barriers that must be overcome in order for that 2029 goal to be met, Boulet said.

Durham and Boulet said there is bipartisan legislative support to pull back some of the regulations to fix this problem.

“Louisiana has special challenges compared to other states because of our legal environment,” Boulet said. “I think everyone recognizes that we need this. There’s not a political fight on this. We’re kind of at this tipping point where we better get on board with this or we may lose our rural towns forever.”

©2020 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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