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Poorer communities continue to suffer lack of broadband access

26th March 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Matt Davis
thelensnola.org

Subscribers to high-speed Internet services in New Orleans are generally white and in the higher income brackets, according to a new nationwide study that also found Louisiana lags the rest of the country when it comes to accessing broadband technology.

This issue is about more than convenience for watching movies and listening to music; increasingly, high-speed Internet access is essential for effective education, civic engagement and economic opportunity.

Lacking broadband access to the Web can be hugely detrimental to one’s future prospects, said Josh Levy, the Internet campaign director with Freepress.net, a national organization working to promote universal access to communications.

“People who run small businesses depend on high speed broadband to get work,” he said. “It hurts people’s ability to get educated. If you’re looking for a job, you need to be able to get online to do that. You can’t write and send a resume on a cellphone.”

Of course, having access to the high-speed Internet and taking advantage of it are two different things.

In the Lower 9th Ward, David Eber runs the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. At the nonprofit’s offices on Chartres Street, he pays for Broadband Internet access through Cox Communications and runs community engagement initiatives on issues such as food security and blight reduction, through a variety of channels, including a blog and e-newsletter. But it is difficult to engage citizens who aren’t online, he said.

“Most folks down here don’t have the Internet,” Eber said. “If everyone had it, it would be a lot easier because if we’re planning an event we can’t just send out an email. We’re working on setting up a block captain program so that we can contact people who do have access to the Internet, and have them contact their neighbors. But it’s not the easiest thing in the world to engage people who aren’t online.”

Around the corner, Ward McClendon runs the Ninth Ward Village community center, which has seven computers available for residents to use. He pays about $400 a month to Cox Com­munications for broadband access and telephones, and he said the service is in heavy demand.

“It’s so important to have Internet access,” he said. “After Katrina, a lot of people lost their property because they couldn’t access the information the needed about it. People need to apply for jobs, and just to do their everyday business, but they can’t afford it at home.”

McClendon said, however, that securing Internet access for people in the community is hardly the top priority at the moment. Seven years after Katrina, the area is still without a permanent fire station and there is just one school. McClendon would like to see a fire station completed so that his insurance premiums start to fall, and more Lower 9th Ward residents can consider returning to the neighborhood.

To organize community events, McClendon fliers the neighborhood and works his cell phone, rather than relying on social networking or emails.

In McClendon’s computer lab, Oliver Butler, 20, was updating his Facebook profile on a recent afternoon. He’s used the computers to apply for a dozen jobs in catering, construction, and to study for his drivers’ license, he said. Unfortunately Butler has had little luck with the applications, but considers the Internet access — which he doesn’t have at home — vital for his prospects.

Government officials nationwide have undertaken efforts to remove the financial barriers to broadband access, with the goal of providing a free or low-cost system. Some started then stumbled, some ran into political and philosophical barriers, and some succeeded. Examples of all three situations can be found in Louisiana.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans officials planned for and began a municipal broadband effort to provide wide access, but that was dashed by harsh economic realities and then snakebit by political corruption. Statewide, a public effort to expand access in rural areas was canceled when Gov. Bobby Jindal refused to accept the terms of a federal grant for the work. Officials in Lafayette created their own municipal subscription network that’s been held up as a model effort, a service that was recently featured in USA Today.

Orleans Parish has 40 percent to 60 percent broadband subscription rates, which compares poorly with most metropolitan counties nationwide, which average in the 60 percent to 80 percent range. Louisiana is ranked 44th out of 50 states in terms of broadband subscription, with just 51 percent of residents subscribing, according to data compiled by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. The average state has 60 percent broadband subscription.

The New Orleans data show that wealthy, white Uptown New Orleans has subscription rates of between 80 and 100 percent, and suburban areas such as Metairie and Belle Chasse are similarly well served. Meanwhile poorer, more African-American areas such as the Lower 9th Ward have broadband subscription rates of between 0 and 40 percent.

Statewide, there is also an urban-rural divide in broadband access, with data showing that Orleans Parish as a whole has it’s 40 percent to 60 percent access, but rural areas of the state show subscription rates between at 0 to 20 percent.
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In 2006, the City of New Orleans struck a deal with Atlanta-based Earthlink to build a free municipal broadband network for the city. Former city technology chief Greg Meffert hailed the deal as a “lifeline to businesses and citizens who are in devastated areas or otherwise can’t afford access to the Internet.”

But after spending $4 million to install the network, Earthlink shut it down in May 2008, citing a low level of usage.

“The city of New Orleans has not picked up that ball, pretty much since the deal went down,” said Craig Setttles, an independent analyst of municipal broadband issues and author of the book Fighting The Good Fight for Municipal Wireless. “It’s kind of a shame. A lot of the companies that were trying to get into these markets, like Earthlink, had bad business plans and failed as a result.”

Neither Earthlink nor Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration responded to questions about what has happened to the network.

Users seeking high-speed access now hope to find the stray unsecured network, visit a business that offers it, or subscribe to one of several providers for about $30 a month.

Meffert’s guilty plea in a kickback scheme involving his office made the prospects of working with the city somewhat toxic, Settles said, because of Meffert’s involvement with the original network.

“It didn’t help that Mr. Meffert happened to find himself with some legal issues,” Settles said. “Nobody wants to be attached to the wireless network now because of the stigma there.”
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Statewide, prospects for wider broadband access have stumbled, too. In November, Jindal refused an $80 million federal grant aimed at spreading broadband to poor, rural areas of the state.

Jindal released a statement to The Times-Picayune newspaper saying the grant “called for a heavy-handed approach from the federal government that would have undermined and taken over private business.

“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,” Jindal wrote. “We won’t stand for that in Louisiana.”

At the time, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell accused Jindal of killing the state’s broadband plan as a favor to private broadband interests, which had supported his campaign.

“This was a terrible mistake they made, not getting that grant,” Campbell told The Lens in a phone interview. “People who gave Jindal large amounts of money objected to the project, and I thought there was a hell of a conflict. Jindal talks about education reform, but how are they going to get education reform in those rural parishes if they can’t get access to high speed Internet?”

Jindal did not respond to requests for comment from The Lens.

James Davis, with Network USA, one of the private companies Campbell singled out as benefiting from the loss of the grant, refuted the idea that Jindal’s position had favored his company.

“Foster Campbell’s comments were his own opinion, and I don’t agree with him,” Davis said. “I’d like to see how we benefited from the loss of the grant.”

Philip Meyers, executive vice president of GEC, a Baton Rouge-based consulting company charged with installing the proposed rural broadband system, said the federal government withdrew the money because the state wanted to farm out the broadband deal to private companies. He said was ready to deliver a state-owned system but was shut out.

“I had a plan to perform, and they pulled the plug on me,” Meyers said.
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Across the country, Levy of Freepress.net has encountered countless examples of private broadband providers muscling out efforts by government to provide the public with free access. In 2011, for example, North Carolina legislators voted for a “level playing field” law, which effectively prohibited local governments from building their own broadband networks to compete with private industry.

Democratic state representative, Bill Faison said Time Warner Cable and other major network providers pushed the law through, in response to efforts by the town of Wilson, N.C., to install its own high-speed municipal network.

“This was the Time Warner Cable Limited monopoly bill,” Faison said, in a telephone interview with The Lens. “They limited the ability for any municipality to provide these services to their citizens.”

While municipalities can provide broadband to customers in rural areas for as few as three to six customers per mile, major companies like Time Warner Cable are only interested in installing networks where they can guarantee 167 customers a mile, Faison said.

“So the big boys’ solution to the problem was to force the municipalities out,” Faison said. “They brought down a dozen lobbyists and went after the legislators really, really hard. It was a bad thing, I think, for the people ultimately, of this state.”

Justin Venech, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, said the bill was about creating a level playing field for governments and cable companies competing in the broadband arena, and that it didn’t necessarily prohibit municipalities from entering the marketplace.

Similar laws are being considered in Minnesota, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, Levy said.

“We’re seeing, basically, the same bill popping up all over the place,” Levy said. “And there’s no excuse for it other than the fact that big monopolies don’t want competition from the public sector.”
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Against a bleak background in Louisiana, Lafayette stands out for having pioneered a municipal broadband network of its own.

Mayor Joey Durel convinced voters in 2006 to adopt a plan to build the network for $150 million, and it is now listed amongst the fastest in the United States.

Lafayette used infrastructure owned by the city’s municipal-owned electricity company, founded in 1896, to create the network.

Durel said he faced considerable opposition from private telecommunications companies to the initiative. One voter even sued the city, hoping to overturn the city’s right to sell bonds to finance the work, but the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against her.

The system isn’t free, but its subscriptions are cheaper than the competing network from Cox Communications, according to a recent story in USA Today. And the service is faster, too.

Durel said the network is likely to start making money in one or two years, and that it has helped the city to compete for jobs.

“If we want the good, high-paying jobs to come to Louisiana,” Durel said, “we’ve got to have good business reasons to do that, rather than just our crawfish and our festivals.”

This article was originally published in the March 26, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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