What digital equity would mean for Central Louisiana

ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) – Within Louisiana and around the world, there exists a “digital divide” between the haves (those who have the affordable access, skills, and support to fully participate in all that the internet offers) and the have nots (those who have traditionally been left out).

Particularly likely to fall into the “have nots” category are Black, Latino, and Indigenous Louisianians, low-income households, people with one or more disabilities, older adults, and residents living in rural areas.

If the disparity was subtle in the past, the COVID-19 pandemic put the divide front and center and reflected the urgency of the situation. Because these groups encompass millions of Louisiana residents, leaving them stranded in the “have nots” category holds our communities back in more ways than one.

Residents without sufficient transportation need suitable internet to attend classes, access medical care, schedule grocery deliveries and more.

Rural farmers need sufficient internet access to operate their tractors’ internal computer systems, monitor water and nutrient levels via remote sensors and complete business transactions for their customers.

Emergency response teams need minute-by-minute online data to track storm systems, deploy rescue teams and coordinate cleanups after a hurricane sweeps through the state.

Parents homeschooling their children are left with no options when internet-based tools are suddenly out of reach on any given day, all because their service provider is experiencing their fourth outage in a week.

As we have all seen throughout the pandemic, the list of scenarios in which sufficient internet is vital are seemingly endless.

Setting a Plan in Motion

As previously reported, Louisiana is set to receive unprecedented broadband investment funds including grants through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the State’s GUMBO program (acronym for “Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities”), and a substantial cash infusion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in August 2021.

At the Central Louisiana’s Regional Digital Equity Stakeholder meeting held on Oct. 26 at Central Louisiana Technical Community College (CLTCC), a coalition of state and local organizations were proud to confirm that through this statewide effort, every single address in Louisiana, both commercial and residential, will have access to high-speed internet.

According to Veneeth Iyengar, Executive Director of ConnectLA, “high-speed” broadband means download speeds of approximately 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of approximately 20 Mbps.

Side note: for those who currently have internet service at their home or business and are curious about the connection speed, check out this free and reputable Speed Test. For so many of us, our system’s current performance stats are likely nowhere near the true definition of “high-speed,” no matter what our local internet service provider (ISP) claims.

As Iyengar affirmed in the meeting, “Senator Cassidy was one of the key vocal supporters of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, so we’ll get over $1 billion and from that we’re going to try to accelerate all of these [digital equity] efforts forward.”

“I don’t want people to have FOMO (slang for “fear of missing out”), because it’s not if someone is going to get access to high-speed internet; it’s really when,” Iyengar said. The ConnectLA team has been aggressive in securing commitments in grant distribution, so they expect to receive around 20 percent of the roughly $1 billion by this time next year.

As co-moderator of the event, LSUA Chancellor Paul Coreil affirmed that equitable broadband development is the new running water, a public infrastructure component as important as electricity, water services, and sewage services.

“We’ve got to get it right, because this is too important,” said Chancellor Coreil.

Focusing on this once-in-a-century chance to propel our state forward, the meeting attendees affirmed that advancing digital equity must underpin every dollar received and every dollar spent.

We must then ask, “What does digital equity even mean?” According to this broadband development coalition, the four elements of digital equity include:

  • Affordable, sufficient high-speed internet services that work when we need them most (not just sometimes)
  • Internet-ready devices like smart phones, computers, or tablets available for all users
  • Digital applications and services that are reliable and user-friendly for all users
  • Digital skills for all users and provided in a culturally competent way that learners can understand and absorb

With the combination of these four elements, all Louisiana residents will have the chance to fully participate “in our society, our democracy, our economy, and their own education,” said Chancellor of CLTCC and the meeting’s co-moderator, Jimmy Sawtelle.

Why They Need Us

In addition to crafting the first five-year Plan, the ConnectLA team is simultaneously relying on community engagement to develop the Digital Inclusion Plan, which will focus on all four elements listed above. Throughout the interactive meeting designed to jumpstart stakeholder feedback, Iyengar urged, “I need you over the next two hours not to be bashful. I need you to speak honestly, passionately, and from your personal perspective.”

Serving as a roadmap, ConnectLA and their partners have created a seven-question survey for everyone to voice their specific needs, ideas, and experiences as the plan moves forward. They’ve stressed the importance of facilitating survey responses from as many varieties of stakeholders as possible to reach each corner of our region.

The survey can be accessed here online or by contacting the ConnectLA office directly via email ([email protected]) or phone (225-219-7594). The team is also working to promptly distribute paper forms throughout the community.

In gaining concrete feedback, the meeting at CLTCC was an excellent start as the attendees represented regional planning commissions, library administrators, school board superintendents, economic development professionals, small business owners, charitable foundations and more.

But whose perspectives were missing and are desperately needed to build out this plan with diverse community groups in mind?

Of the 40+ stakeholder groups that make up the fabric of our community, several were unable to attend this session or were unaware it was taking place, highlighting the necessity of universal communication strategies moving forward. Church leaders, instructors of English as a second language (ESL), public housing authorities, tribal communities and organizations geared toward formerly incarcerated or houseless Louisianans are a few key examples of the voices we need to make this program really work for all.

The meeting attendees workshopped ideas for getting this essential survey into the hands of those currently facing barriers to sufficient internet access or comprehensive digital literacy. One attendee suggested working with local utility providers to incorporate a digital link or paper survey into the utility bills going out to customers each month. Other options included identifying anchor institutions, especially churches and large community service organizations, to use their social connections to alert as many people as possible to the need for their input. Attendees agreed that an all-inclusive marketing approach utilizing TV broadcasts, AM/FM radio shows, social media outlets and word of mouth is key.

Even with all these options, there is an important group of people who need extra support from those around them: those who struggle to read and write.

“I’ll be honest with you; I’ve worked in rural parishes for over 14 years and there are many people that cannot read,” said Chancellor Coreil. “When someone comes into my office, I don’t just assume that they can read. I make a point to be very open and let them know that if they can’t fill something out, I am happy to help them do it. So how do you get that person’s feedback? It takes some patience, and it takes respect.”

Working with What We’ve Got

The meeting attendees’ general consensus was that although we have a long way to go in achieving digital equity throughout the state and across our eight-parish area (Avoyelles, Catahoula, Concordia, Grant, LaSalle, Rapides, Vernon, and Winn parishes), it’s important to recognize that we are not starting from scratch.

The group discussed existing regional assets such as the Rapides Parish Library (RPL) system’s laptop and WiFi hotspot lending program.

According to RPL Director, Celise Reech-Harper, all 10 parish branches offer access to the Northstar Digital Literacy platform, which provides assessments, skill-building modules and official module certificates for computer and internet software. Because of RPL’s leadership role in the state’s digital literacy efforts, it was also selected by a state coalition to participate in a new digital literacy pilot program; of 55 library professionals chosen as trainees and Digital Navigators, seven were from RPL and will be the inaugural boots on the ground expanding digital literacy in the region.

For senior citizens and their caregivers, the CENLA Area Agency on Aging, Inc. operates several senior centers across a 20-parish area. Executive Director Joyce Thompson shared that each center is outfitted with computers and trained staff to assist users in using the internet to access medical care, Social Security benefits, social activities and more.

The aforementioned Northstar program is also available at CLTCC’s downtown Alexandria campus in the library, which is open to the public. The library staff are trained to teach community members a variety of computer and internet skills, including applying for jobs online.

As it pertains internet safety, LSUA is hosting a free computer safety class on Nov. 10 to teach people how to safely navigate the internet while protecting themselves and their financial information. While these skills are essential learning for all ages, the event is geared towards people 50 years of age or older and who are especially vulnerable to internet fraud. According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, older internet users were scammed out of $1.8 billion in 2021 alone with an average of $18,000 in theft per victim. Click this link or call 318-473-6578 to register for this free event and secure your spot.

The group then discussed future plans already in motion. Director Jennifer DePriest of the Region 6 STEM Center, located in Alexandria and hosted by Northwestern State University, is developing a “Recipe for Rural STEM” initiative to address the location-specific needs and bridge the digital divide. She says 70 percent of their new budget is earmarked for these rural development efforts.

“The future is looking bright as far as achieving digital literacy for the future of our kids. The district’s goal is a 1-to-1 ratio for student’s having access to Google Chromebooks. These kids that live in rural communities can come to school […] and they’re getting trained in how to use the internet with online testing the primary form of testing across the state. Students graduating high school are moving on and taking those skills with them,” said Matt Thompson, Director of Technology at Rapides Parish School District.

Moving Forward

The meeting ended with a tone of confidence for the future, not only because there were so many eager advocates in the room, but because Louisiana is finally a frontrunner for broadband access when our communities are so often left behind.

It’s also clear that no single person or group can bridge the digital divide all on their own. As mentioned above, we need more ways to get the word out about this survey, including providing them in paper format and in multiple languages so that all in Louisiana can voice their specific needs, ideas, and experiences.

In working to ensure digital equity, we are tackling so many of our communities’ most pressing issues. Digital equity improves healthcare outcomes, educational attainment and economic equality. It helps our cities bounce back faster when disaster strikes.

Equally important but most exciting of all, it’s a chance for Louisiana to launch into its own future with unlimited possibilities.

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