Sunday, May 26, 2024

Telecom giant loses protest of rural broadband grant in northeast Louisiana

by BIZ Magazine

By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator

State officials have rejected a protest from telecommunications giant Cable One against a new company trying to bring faster internet service to East Carroll Parish. 

Division of Administration spokesperson Jacques Berry confirmed the ruling Thursday. He shared a letter dated Sept. 30 that the state Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity (OBDC) sent to Cable One, which is doing business as Sparklight. 

According to the letter, Sparklight failed to meet the burden of proof required to sustain a protest of the $4 million grant awarded to Conexon Connect, a Missouri business that partners with rural utility cooperatives to provide high-speed internet service in hard-to-reach communities. 

OBDC Executive Director Vaneeth Iyengar wrote that Sparklight provided such a limited explanation in its protest that the agency had difficulty discerning and analyzing the company’s argument. Among other things, Sparklight failed to provide enough evidence that its current customers actually receive internet speeds that meet the minimum threshold state law requires, the letter stated. 

“Sparklight has not established what true speeds are available to its customers and has therefore failed to carry its burden of proof as the protestor,” Iyengar wrote. 

The Conexon project is slated to bring affordable internet access to 851 locations in the Lake Providence area. 

The OBDC grant is one of 81 awarded through its Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO) program for rural broadband expansion funded through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act. 

Many grants have gone to similar small internet service providers (ISPs) and telecom startups, several of which are Louisiana-based. Almost immediately following a July 25 announcement of initial grants, competing telecom companies already established in Louisiana filed formal protests with the state, forcing the OBDC to halt 26 awards in accordance with state law and the rules of the GUMBO program.

Many of those initial protest filings have since been resolved or voluntarily withdrawn, Iyengar said in a September interview.

Cable One filed its protest of the East Carroll grant even though the company never applied for the grant itself — a situation that angered residents and local activists in Lake Providence. 

Delta Interfaith, an advocacy group that lobbied heavily to bring higher internet speeds to rural parts of northeast Louisiana, issued a press release Wednesday, saying residents are “cautiously celebrating” the state’s decision to uphold the grant. 

“We applaud the work of Veneeth Iyengar and Louisiana’s broadband office, which has carefully considered the evidence and decided to uphold the grant award,” Delta Interfaith leader Linda Milikin said in the release.

Cable One could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday. The company can appeal the decision to the Commissioner of Administration within 15 days of receiving the letter and can then take the matter to court if it is unhappy with the commissioner’s ruling.

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