A giant ISP is blocking broadband funds for a tiny Louisiana parish (2022)

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Land grab Waiting game

The people of Louisiana’s East Carroll parish had been fighting for decent broadband for more than two years by the time their governor, John Bel Edwards, arrived in town in July to announce his plan to make their wishes come true.

The rural northeast region of the state, which hugs the Mississippi River and was once dominated by cotton plantations, remains one of the poorest parts of Louisiana and the country. When COVID-19 shutdowns turned everything virtual in the spring of 2020, many of East Carroll’s residents who lack internet access or computers were left in the dark.

So this summer, when Gov. Edwards was preparing to announce $130 million worth of broadband infrastructure grants — including $4 million for East Carroll — he knew just where to go. “We could have gone anywhere in the 50 parishes, but we’re here in East Carroll today because of the commitment I made to you,” Gov. Edwards said on a Facebook Live video, speaking directly to one local advocate in particular, Wanda Manning, a former school teacher who was watching from home.

“He’s a man of his word. He came and delivered the award himself,” said Manning, who now works with Delta Interfaith, a coalition of churches that’s trying to close the digital divide in East Carroll. The community was so appreciative of the grant that advocates scheduled a parade in August, where they planned to start signing people up for service.

But within days of Edwards’ visit, those plans were in peril, and they remain so today as the telecom giant, Sparklight, fights to quash the parish’s grassroots ISP effort. At issue is the deal Delta Interfaith struck with a rural internet service provider called Conexon Connect, which was willing to provide East Carroll fast, affordable service when it seemed no one else would.

But shortly after Edwards announced the grant to Conexon, Sparklight (formerly Cable One) mounted a protest to the state broadband authority. Sparklight argued that it already provides or could provide adequate service to most of the homes Conexon intends to serve, a claim Manning and others thoroughly contest. Though the window for challengers to speak up against the Conexon plan had been open since Conexon first filed its application months before, Sparklight made its claims on the last day allowed under the law.

To local residents, the last-minute objection feels especially cruel.

“It did not seem like a good-faith protest,” said Nathaniel Wills, an organizer with Delta Interfaith, which represents dozens of different churches in the Louisiana Delta. “It seemed like a last-minute effort to block competition.”

Sparklight spokesperson Trish Niemann told Protocol the company is mounting the protest not to block competition but to ensure funds are directed at the places most in need. “Sparklight offers speeds well above the minimum requirement — and has for some time now,” Niemann said of the company's service in East Carroll parish. “As a result, we strongly believe that public grant funds would be best used in other communities throughout Louisiana that do not already have access to broadband.”

The fate of East Carroll’s grant is now in the hands of the state broadband authority. A spokesperson for the Louisiana Division of Administration, which oversees the GUMBO grant program dedicated to helping underserved areas get broadband service, said the division will review Sparklight’s protest and Conexon’s response before making a decision.

But while the outcome will have a potentially huge impact on the people of East Carroll, they’re hardly alone in the battle against major telecom companies trying to fend off competition in underserved areas. Fifteen other broadband grants are being contested in Louisiana alone, and similar fights are playing out across the country. Now, thanks to a massive amount of broadband funding set to flow into states under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, these fights could become even more frequent — and even more fierce. “It’s happening all over the country,” said Jonathan Chambers, a partner at Conexon, “but it’s going to get worse.”

Land grab

Under the infrastructure law signed last year, Congress set aside $42.5 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, which will fund new broadband projects in unserved and underserved areas. It’s a historic sum. But it could inspire even more aggressive turf wars by incumbent ISPs, keeping critical funding in limbo while corporations and communities try to persuade local governments to see their side. How states respond to and preempt those challenges matters, making East Carroll an important test case of what’s to come.

“If you can’t get a state led by a Democratic governor to fund what would be his constituency, if you can’t get them to see their way clear to help the poorest place in the country, what chance do you have to spend $42.5 billion in all these other places?” Chambers said.

It’s not that residents of East Carroll have no internet plans to choose from. It’s that they say the available plans are expensive and slow, leading some families to forgo service altogether. “It’s crazy for parents to pay $140 for dial-up,” Manning, who was born and raised in the area, said. “I didn’t know dial-up was still a thing.”

Sparklight’s Niemann said the company offers “speeds up to 940 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload,” which exceeds minimum requirements for the GUMBO grant. But, as is often the case in disputes between ISPs and the people who pay for their service, locals in East Carroll say that hasn’t been their experience. In its quest for better service, Delta Interfaith has deployed networks of people, Manning included, to conduct door-to-door speed tests at different homes in the area, and Wills said, “We’ve never had any speed test that high.”

“I didn’t know dial-up was still a thing.”

The lack of access was bad enough before COVID, contributing to a rapidly declining population in the parish. But after lockdowns, it became utterly unworkable. The school district scrambled to secure mobile hotspots for kids with no internet at home, but even that was unreliable for kids living in cell service dead zones. The community struck a deal with Elon Musk’s Starlink, which donated its satellite internet service to homes where children receiving free and reduced lunches lived. But the leaders at Delta Interfaith knew the donations couldn’t last forever, so they sought out ISPs that would be willing to build a new, permanent network in the area.

Again and again, Wills said, they were rejected. “They said things like, ‘If it’s in our business interest, we’ll put service there some day,’” he said.

In April 2021, they discovered Conexon, a firm that typically works with rural electric cooperatives and that had already landed FCC funding to build a fiber network in a nearby area. With additional funding, Conexon said it could continue that work in East Carroll and bring a fiber connection to more than 800 locations. The company planned to offer, at minimum, 100 Mbps for uploads and downloads for $50 a month. For low-income households that qualify for the FCC’s $30 monthly internet discounts, it would be cheaper. On the higher end, Conexon said it could offer 2-gigabit speeds for $100 a month.

But first, they needed funding. Organizers at Delta Interfaith and executives at Conexon set their sights on winning a grant from Louisiana’s $130 million GUMBO grant program, which had been funded by Congress under the American Rescue Plan. Last December, Conexon filed its application and prepared to wait out the months-long protest period during which incumbents are allowed to mount objections, which they almost always do. But this time, no one did. At least, not until some seven months later, after the award was announced, after a splashy press event where the governor held up East Carroll as an inspiration and thanked its citizens, after the community planned a parade.

Niemann of Sparklight said the company waited until the post-award period to protest because that’s when “specific address-level data” became available. But according to Chambers and the government agency that oversees the GUMBO grants, that’s not the case. “They could see in the portal what was being applied for, at the address level, in order to decide whether or not they wanted to protest,” said Jacques Berry, policy and communication director for the Louisiana Division of Administration. Conexon also shared a copy of an email the state’s deputy director sent out in January, which said “all applications and project areas are now public.”

A giant ISP is blocking broadband funds for a tiny Louisiana parish (1)“Everybody had an opportunity to build out East Carroll and did not, because it’s poor. Because it’s old cotton country. Because nobody wants to serve that area,” said Jonathan Chambers, a partner at rural internet service provider Conexon Connect.Photo: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Asked to clarify her comments, Niemann said the delay actually was due to technical issues on Sparklight’s end that prevented it from accessing the file. Asked to confirm that it took seven months for the billion-dollar telecom company to find a way to access a file, she said, "In all transparency, that is an accurate assessment."

Whatever their timing during the protest period, Chambers argues that major ISPs, including Sparklight, already had ample time to expand in the area long ago. “Everybody had an opportunity to build out East Carroll and did not, because it’s poor. Because it’s old cotton country. Because nobody wants to serve that area,” Chambers said. “You might wonder why someone would challenge only after it’s been awarded … It’s the same game the incumbent telephone companies and cable companies play in every state where this is permitted.”

Waiting game

But these eleventh-hour objections aren’t permitted in every state, and experts say states and the federal government could learn a lot from places that have instituted guardrails to discourage last-minute or frivolous protests. In Minnesota, for instance, telecom companies that mount challenges but fail to actually deliver service lose their ability to challenge again for two grant cycles. In Colorado, any incumbent that blocks another application must match both the technology and pricing of the application they defeated.

“If I ran a state, I would combine both of those to make sure fraudulent challenges were minimized,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In other states, Chambers said, the government gives companies a chance to indicate where they already provide service up front, then produces a map of the remaining areas that are eligible for grant funding. That eliminates the kind of last-minute holdups East Carroll is now experiencing. “The way it’s structured, we had to wait,” Chambers said. “We could have been done already.”

“Everybody had an opportunity to build out East Carroll and did not, because it’s poor. Because it’s old cotton country. Because nobody wants to serve that area.”

All of this could serve as a lesson to other states as they plan to deploy billions of dollars in new broadband money. And if states don’t take that lesson, Chambers argues the NTIA, which is overseeing the funding program, should. “The NTIA could use their approval mechanism to clean up this sort of thing and say, ‘If you’re going to have a challenge process, the challenge has to be made with evidence, not just assertions,’” he said. The NTIA didn’t respond to Protocol’s request for comment.

Wills and other representatives from Delta Interfaith recently met with Sparklight to voice their concerns, but so far, he said, they see little evidence the company is prepared to budge. And there’s no telling when the state will reach its decision. This week, Delta Interfaith plans to launch a national pressure campaign with its sister organizations across the country, urging Sparklight to drop its protest.

But if Conexon ultimately does lose the award, Wills says that won’t be the end of the community’s fight for better broadband. It just means they’ll have to keep waiting.

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