As states prepare to receive their allocations from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, Louisiana is putting the finishing touches on its plan to put that money to work.
On Tuesday, the state’s broadband office released the first volume of its BEAD proposal, outlining Louisiana’s current efforts to deploy broadband, a breakdown of unserved and underserved locations as well as how it plans to tackle the challenge process. Louisiana has also drafted an expansive digital equity plan, per requirements set by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
Thomas Tyler, deputy director of ConnectLA, told Fierce the digital equity plan is a starting point for meeting the requirements that NTIA needs from a state office. Louisiana is the first state to publicly release its initial BEAD proposal and digital equity plan.
“From our perspective, no one in our state has ever really done anything like that before, whether it’s a municipality or at a county level,” he said. “Really, it’s the first effort at pushing out a draft that contemplates all the different requirements from the digital equity NOFO [notice of funding opportunity] and to make sure we’re being thoughtful about how we execute on certain plans or spin funding in a certain way.”
Both the digital equity plan and BEAD proposal are available for public comment. The deadline to submit comments for the BEAD proposal is June 23, about a week before the NTIA is set to announce BEAD allocations. Whereas the comment period for the digital equity plan closes after July 7.
The first volume of the BEAD proposal addresses four of the 19 different requirements outlined by NTIA, Tyler explained. Regarding the challenge process, Louisiana is adopting NTIA’s model challenge process, which the agency unveiled last month, “so we can continue to move with that same sense of urgency that we have previously.”
He added Louisiana estimates its BEAD allocation will be over a billion dollars, so the state expects “to be able to reach the vast majority of [its] citizens with fiber connections.”
Asked if he considers Louisiana ahead of the game on broadband access, Tyler said “that’s what people keep telling us,” but noted the state office is still relatively young, as ConnectLA was established in 2021.
“We’ve taken what a lot of states did previously and adapted them…with our own sense of flavor and urgency and [we] continue to move quickly,” he said. “We’ve been successful in that and working with all our stakeholders and our federal partners to make sure that we’re doing everything we need to do to bring broadband to our residents that don’t have it.”
A bright side to the BEAD planning process, Tyler went on to say, is how closely states are collaborating with one another.
“It’s really an unprecedented type of collaboration, where you’re seeing all of these different state offices kind of working together as sounding boards, to come up with ideas and to offer insight on certain things,” he said, pointing out NTIA has also been helpful in communicating with states.
Climate resiliency is a key part of Louisiana’s initial BEAD proposal, Tyler said, given the prevalence of hurricanes.
“We have an exhaustive detail, especially sponsored by some of our state agencies who are well versed in climate change and natural disasters and threats like that,” he said. “So, we’re looking at it from that lens as well, where we can offer redundant or resilient infrastructure, where even in the event of a disaster everyone can still receive connectivity.”
After Hurricane Katrina hit, Louisiana stood up the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), an organization that leverages state and federal funds to restore the state’s terrain. This summer, CPRA plans to release maps that will help Louisiana decide where to build more resilient infrastructure, said Tyler.
“As an example of that, there might be locations or routes where you say, we need to build fiber underground here,” he explained. “We want to go down to a more granular level and as we go through and define a project area we can say, these routes need to be more resilient or have better infrastructure in place.”
While building fiber underground might be better in some instances, Tyler said it depends on how close the infrastructure is to the coast.
“There might be an argument to use marine grade equipment in some areas,” he said. “We also need to protect from saltwater intrusion or coastal loss.”
Louisiana’s terrain consists of “a lot of marsh and lakes,” but the northern part of the state is “much hillier,” so there are areas where “it’s harder to bore through the ground or put stuff underground.”
Accessibility and workforce
Per NTIA’s guidelines, BEAD funded projects must provide at least 100/20 Mbps service, if not 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds.
“We recently changed our state law to make sure anything below 100/20 is considered unserved to give us flexibility there,” Tyler said. “What we’re looking to do is incentivize the truly unserved locations first and then offer additional incentives – when they really are 25/3 or 10/1 – and make sure that we’re not going to leave those locations out again.”
He noted Louisiana does not have its own broadband coverage map, so it will be using the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) national map for distributing BEAD funds.
“We submitted a bunch of challenges on the locations and service availability previously,” Tyler added. The state’s total challenge tally for the FCC map was 60,000 as of January. “We’ll be continuing to work with our locals as well as the FCC to make sure the map is as perfect as it can be.”
The broadband workforce shortage is a prevalent issue across the country. Tyler admitted while Louisiana “hasn’t seen much of it yet,” the state is “putting plans in place to help address that.”
The Louisiana Community and Technical College System in the past year has stood up various programs for training broadband workers.
“By September of this year, every single community and technical college system in our state will have a curriculum surrounding this, where people can drive to their closest [school] and take classes, make meaningful changes to their lives and build a career out of it,” Tyler said.
If there’s anything the federal government should remember as it promotes broadband deployment, it’s that there’s a “sense of urgency” in the process.
“I think if there’s anything to learn, it’s that everyone needs to continue to work with the same sense of urgency that we are,” he stated.