New office envisions eliminating the digital divide

By Bonnie Culverhouse

The next time you wonder what we did before we had Internet, remember there are many residents in Webster, Claiborne and Bienville parishes who still don’t have it.

“There are a lot of needs in this state – roads, bridges – but most people will tell you: ‘connect me to the Internet, so I can function and so my kids don’t have to go somewhere else to connect to the Internet,” said former state Sen. Gerald Long. “That’s what we are doing.”

A newly-created state office of Broadband Development and Connectivity has made it a mission to eliminate the digital divide by 2029, ensuring anyone who wants Internet will have access.

Executive Director Veneeth Iyengar told a room of interested public officials from the three parishes and Internet representatives that his new office is looking at unserved and underserved.

“There are three important points,” he said. “Infrastructure/access, affordability and digital literacy.”

According to Iyengar’s numbers, 86 percent of Bienville Parish residents are without Broadband access. Almost half of Claiborne Parish is without and around 25 percent of Webster Parish residents have no connectivity.

In order to take on the infrastructure/access pillar of broadband, the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity is providing grants to private providers of broadband services to facilitate the areas with no Internet access, providing transmission speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload.

“This is a federal program, with a total of $177 million to bring fiber to the home,” Iyengar said. “The first application deadline for $90-to $95,000 is November 1 through December 31. The next deadline will be mid-March with awarding from June to July.

“We want to have all $177 million committed by this time in 2024 and reduce the numbers of unserved and underserved by half in the next five years,” he continued.

Another area of focus is affordability.

“Typically a broadband Internet service package will cost a consumer between $50 and $75 per month, not including cable or phone service,” Iyengar said. “For some families that level of cost can be burdensome, and there is no point in having Internet if you can’t afford it.”

Lastly, Digital Literacy is a focus to ensure when residents have the Internet, they know how to use it.

“Our office estimates that as many as 462,000 Louisiana residents ages 18-64 may lack the digital literacy skills necessary to take full advantage of broadband,” he added. “This is where your library and Chamber of Commerce, as well as your community college come in to play.”

In order to apply for a grant, entities should go to for pertaining information. Residents who would like to know their Internet speed can go to the same site and click on the appropriate box.

Photo by Bonnie Culverhouse: Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of Louisiana Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity, talks with a group at the Greater Minden Chamber of Commerce office.