Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Bossier Police Jury outlines rural broadband funding options

by BIZ Magazine

Making broadband services available to all areas of Bossier Parish can be boiled down to providing incentives for companies in the industry, and Parish Administrator Bill Altimus believes a major incentive is already available in the form of money. Lots of it.

Altimus told members of the parish police jury Wednesday that financial resources for potential broadband providers is available in three areas: $342 million through the state Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), $180 million in the state GUMBO Grant Program and $1.8 billion for the state of Louisiana from the federal American Rescue Plan that targets water, sewer and broadband.

Bossier Parish received $5.8 million as its share of money allocated to the state from the RDOF to help incentivize companies hoping to provide coverage in underserved areas. Figures show 14,000 Bossier Parish residents (11.2 percent) do not have broadband service.

“We met last week with people from the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity, including the Executive Director Veneeth Iyengar, and they are talking about three areas to promote broadband,” Altimus said. “They are focusing on infrastructure, affordability and digital literacy.”

Altimus said bids have already been awarded to five providers for expansion of broadband services in Bossier Parish during the FCC’s RDOF phase 1 auction last year.  Winning bidders were Altice USA, Inc., AMG Technology Investment Group LLC, CenturyLink, Inc., Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. 

“We need to get a sit-down with the companies, plus others who are in the industry and are interested in expanding their reach, and see what we can do to incentivize them and perhaps expand on what they are already planning,” Altimus told jury members. 

Altimus said the police jury could also help companies who are interested in obtaining money through the state’s GUMBO program. This program is available only to broadband providers and those companies must apply for those funds. Applications must be vetted by the broadband commission. 

“We can help support GUMBO applications to companies that express interest. And, this GUMBO is grant money that doesn’t have to be repaid,” he said. 

Altimus said affordability of the broadband services is enhanced by an FCC program, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, that lowers the cost of services for eligible households.

Under the program, a discount of up to $50 a month is available for every household if one member of that household meets outlined requirements. Up to $75 a month is available for households on Tribal lands. Enrollment for the program began in May of this year. Details of the program are available on the police jury’s website and Facebook page.

“Under the guidelines for the benefit program, just about every household has someone that meets the qualifications,” Altimus said. 

Digital literacy is one area that must be addressed, Altimus said. To help individuals who have limited Internet abilities, the Bossier Parish Library System could be an answer.

“We’re going to reach out to our library system to see what they can do to help educate people and to establish programs to assist those who need it,” Altimus said. “I know BPCC (Bossier Parish Community College) and institutions are interested in these assistance programs.”

To prepare for broadband expansion, Altimus said a Bossier Parish Broadband Navigator Committee has been formed. The committee will focus on key issues important to the expansion of service and the future of broadband in the parish. Chairman of the 12-person committee is District 3 Police Jury member Philip Rodgers.

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