Rural parish residents struggle with inadequate Internet access

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Courtesy Photo

All across the U.S., rural community residents are being left out of modern society and the 21st century economy. 

Since the dawn of the Internet, rural areas of the U.S. have had less Internet access than urban areas. High-speed wired connections are less common, and rural wireless phone service and signals are weaker than in cities – or absent altogether. 

Even as rural America’s wired-Internet speeds and mobile-phone service have improved, the overall problem remains: cities’ services have also gotten better, so the rural communities still have comparatively worse service.

Rural Americans want faster, cheaper Internet like their city-dwelling compatriots have, letting them work remotely and use on-line services to access shopping, news, information and government data. 

Benton resident Bret Crenshaw, is one of the many Bossier Parish community members who wants and needs reliable fast Internet.

“I began my discovery for Internet help years ago but ran into multiple, continuous dead ends.  In the last month, I’ve spoken with Phillip Rodgers, Raymond Crews and Robert Mills, also multiple different sources with AT&T and Suddenlink,” Crenshaw said.

“The Internet needs to be considered essential at this point in 2020.  The fact that so much technology is centered around high speed Internet, the problem will only continue to get worse.  COVID-19 exposed what so many residents already have been saying for multiple years,” he added.

Rural residents have few choices of Internet service providers – or none at all.

Crenshaw went on to say that his neighbors have expressed to him what the lack of stable Internet service is doing to their families.

“There is no way to adequately put it into words, but some of the issues that have been expressed to me include: children with long-term illnesses not able to receive tele-health visits or have their medical devices work properly, children not able to receive counseling via tele-health. Healthcare providers are not able to medically screen patients through tele-health visits. Teachers are not able to teach efficiently through Zoom and other teaching platforms. Children not able to complete homework and other assignments. Professionals note able to work remotely with clients because of slow Internet speeds,” said Crenshaw. 

Looking towards the future, Crenshaw says if the lack of Internet service has not caught up to its full potential, future residents could be hesitant to move to the area, and current residents might consider moving.

“I honestly don’t know how we could be one of the fastest growing areas in the state and still lack high speed Internet in 5 years.  It’s really unfathomable but I thought the same thing five years ago.  I think the only way we are in the same situation in five years would be failing to plan, which is planning to fail.  I think long term effects could have potential home buyers in the Benton area be more hesitant to move to these Internet dead-spots, and possibly some citizens considering moving out,” said Crenshaw.

Crenshaw helped to create a Facebook group to help assemble a platform and a voice for all affected citizens in Benton.  With that group, he was able to further leverage and create a Google map of the already 350+ homes in the area, pinpointing their location.  

Next steps for Crenshaw will include meeting with the mayor of Benton and Police Jury to brainstorm about how to take actionable steps to solve the problem for this area.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily important on how we got here, but it’s paramount to see where we are going next.  Working together as a community and pressing forward with innovative ideas/suggestions all need to be on the table going forward,” said Crenshaw.

As a Benton resident himself, police juror for District 3, Philip Rodgers, knows of the same issues that come with not having effective Internet service. 

“I’ve lived in Benton for 20 years and have never had quality and affordable Internet.  One of the reasons I ran for Police Jury was to shed some light on this issue and be a voice in government to help fix it. The COVID shutdown, while it has really amplified the need for Internet in rural Benton, it has also put a lot of things in government on hold.  The Police Jury is still meeting, but we really have not been able to introduce a lot of new business or have the public attend our meetings,” Rodgers said.

“The Bossier Parish Police Jury has representation on several committees for rural Internet including the newest task force started by Governor Edwards in 2020 called Broadband for Everyone in Louisiana.  We have a great Bossier Parish Police Jury that genuinely cares for the parish and the people in it – we want to help make [broadband] Internet a reality, but it is not something the parish can fund, and I am not for raising taxes to fund [broadband] Internet.  

“We need to get the communication providers to fund this and that’s where we are.   There are bills at the state and federal level that we know about that will hopefully help, but as we know in government, nothing happens fast.  Especially with COVID and the restrictions that have been brought,” he added.

Rodgers went on to say that 5G Internet is coming.

“I’ve been told that 5G is coming and that is our biggest hope for high speed Internet.  When it is coming, I don’t know.  I know that towers are in place, but they all have to be connected which takes time and money.  The reality of it is that it is not cost effective for the broadband companies to run wire for wired broadband on a street with 4 houses or between homes on multiple acres of land.  I hope that the funding and incentives from the state and federal governments can help convince them,” said Rodgers.

To help get broadband Internet to rural areas and your community, Rodgers encourages residents to use the “TestIT” mobile app.

“I learned of a group called NACo and one of their key issues is to help get Internet to rural areas around the country.  They have developed the TestIt mobile app that accurately reports connectivity data instead of the inflated and often inaccurate data the FCC reports,” Rodgers said.

“It is free and simple to use,” he added.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel regarding this issue. 

Last Thursday, Louisiana state senators unanimously approved a measure meant to promote high-speed Internet access in rural areas.

Senate Bill 406 by Sen. Beth Mizell, a Franklinton Republican, would let member-owned electricity cooperatives get into the Internet business, but only in areas where broadband is not already available, which Mizell said is about 40 percent of the state. The co-ops could allow an affiliate to use its electricity infrastructure and issue debt on behalf of the affiliate.

Member-owned co-ops helped bring electricity to rural areas in the early 20th century, and Mizell hopes they can play a similar role bringing high-speed Internet to places that don’t have enough residents to attract for-profit companies. The Federal Communications Commission has established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to distribute $20.4 billion over 10 years to places with limited or no broadband access, and state officials hope to bring some of that money to Louisiana.