No Excuse For Losing The $80 Million Broadband Grant

The state’s loss of an $80 million federal grant to provide Internet service to rural areas of Louisiana is unforgivable. We have heard the excuses offered by Gov. Bobby Jindal and officials with his administration, and they are unacceptable.

What we have here is another example of Jindal’s willingness to take some federal money, but turn it down whenever he sees a political opportunity to play politics and one-up Washington, D.C.

“This grant is a heavy-handed approach from the federal government that would have undermined and taken over private business,” Jindal said. “We have an administration in Washington that wants to run car companies, banks, our entire health care system and now they want to take over the broadband business. We won’t stand for that in Louisiana.”

Paul Rainwater, Jindal’s commissioner of administration, has taken most of the heat for the state’s loss of the grant that was applied for by the state Board of Regents that governs higher education. Rainwater criticized the plan to build a public fiber optic network, saying it would have competed with private companies and cost private sector jobs.

Anyone who is old enough to remember what life was like in rural America when electric power wasn’t available knows Internet access isn’t going to happen soon enough in sparsely-populated areas if the federal government isn’t involved. Electric cooperatives stepped up to the plate in the 1930s after Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act in 1936.

The REA was a public-private partnership that brought electric power to rural America. Electric cooperatives borrowed government funds at a low interest rate to build electrical distribution systems for rural residents on a not-for-profit basis.

The $80 million, U.S. Commerce Department grant would have been used to lay about 900 miles of fiber optic cable needed for broadband Internet services in rural areas in 21 parishes in the northeastern and central parts of the state. State Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, represents much of that area and he decried loss of the grant.

“It’s a tragedy,” Thompson said. “We are the least connected in all of the country. We have to get to the bottom of this. We can’t let it go without a fight.”

That isn’t going to happen, according to the Commerce Department. It said its decision to pull the plug is final and can’t be appealed.

Both Commerce and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are administering billions of dollars in rural Internet grants from the $7.2 billion made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that was approved as a stimulus program after the nation’s economic collapse.

Alabama got five grants totaling $111 million in August of 2010. Some $1.8 billion was awarded by that time to 94 broadband projects in 37 states. Here is what Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said about those projects:

“This is putting Americans back to work in the near-term by managing projects, digging trenches, laying fiber-optic cable, stringing utility poles and building wireless transmission towers, but also the second goal is to lay the groundwork for sustainable economic growth in areas of the country that for too long have been without the economic, educational and social benefits of highspeed Internet,” Locke said.

Washington state got an $84 million grant. A University of Washington researcher said public investment in broadband services is necessary because commercial companies won’t build networks in areas with sparse population or difficult terrain.

Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce, said, “The Louisiana project, as originally submitted, promised great benefits to unserved and underserved areas of the state. However, after the state determined it was unable to implement the original project plan and fell significantly behind schedule, it proposed major modifications to the original proposal without adequate technical and financial details and a viable schedule for completing the project.”

The bottom line here is the Board of Regents asked for the $80 million and got it, but the Jindal administration didn’t like the strings that were attached. So the state changed the federal plan and delayed the timetable. The U.S. Commerce Department said that was unacceptable and took back the money.

The Internet has opened the doors to opportunity wherever it is available, and lives are improved tremendously because of speedy access. Those of us who have been fortunate to live in urban areas where high-speed Internet service is available are at our wit’s end anytime we end up somewhere where easy access isn’t available.

Rural areas in other states are enjoying numerous advantages because their states seized the opportunity to get these federal grants to give their citizens high-speed Internet at reasonable prices. You can go to the web and read their success stories.

The people who live in rural Louisiana deserve the same opportunities, but they are going to have to wait much longer because the state blew a golden opportunity to speed up the process.

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