USDA program to boost rural online service in Iberville Parish

Staff Report
Plaquemine Post South

A $15.5 million federally funded project will create or improve rural e-connectivity for more households, pre-subscribed businesses, and farms across Iberville and two other parishes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Re-Connect Program will implement a high-speed broadband infrastructure project that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for 2,609 rural households, 12 pre-subscribed businesses and 16 pre-subscribed farms.

State and federal officials joined local dignitaries for the announcement last week at the Iberville Welcome Center in Grosse Tête.

The program – one of the many funding announcements in the final round of UDSA's ReConnect Pilot Program investments – will also benefit Pointe Coupee and St. Landry parishes. It is the program's first venture in Louisiana.

"Through USDA's ReConnect Program, thousands of Louisianans living in rural communities will get access to the latest broadband technology that will connect them to opportunities in education, healthcare and economic development," Holleman said. "Under the leadership of President Donald Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA is committed to being a strong partner to rural communities to deploy this critical infrastructure, because we know when rural America thrives, all of America thrives."

The project will significantly boost high-speed internet capability for rural areas throughout Pointe Coupee Parish, where many homes and businesses do not have service.

The ReConnect Program will offer unique federal financing and funding options in the in the form of loans, grants and loan/grant combinations to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America that do not currently have sufficient access to broadband.

The program will generate private sector investment to deploy broadband infrastructure to provide high-speed internet e-Connectivity to as many rural premises as possible, including homes, community facilities for healthcare and public safety, schools, libraries, farms, ranches, factories and other production sites.

At the Louisiana Municipal Association convention last February, they had grant workshops and my grant writer (Janet Marionneaux) had attended the USDA grant meeting, so she got the ball rolling and moving along," Grosse Tête Mayor Mike Chauffe said. "Our Parish Councilman (Tim Vallet) represents the area below Grosse Tête, where they don't have any internet service down there, and he has heard a lot about it from his constituents.

"Janet did research on it, got information to STAR Communications, and they took the ball and ran with it," he said. "We're so glad they did that because businesses are trying to improve, upgrade and move forward."

The upgrades will help in other ways, Chauffe said.

"It will really help for the kids in the STEM Academy, so now they won't have to go through so many hoops to go online, anything from parking in front of the library or using their cellphones," he said. "It's also good for commerce because of everything you buy online, everything from dog food to wedding dresses."

It may also draw more business to the area.

Some prospective businesses and residents passed on the north Iberville area because of the lack of adequate online services.

"Without those advancements, it's been a deterrent for our area," Chauffe said. "Now that we have that, we can attract more people here. It's like the old saying that if you build it, they will come."

Funds from the grant will go toward the construction, improvement and acquisition of facilities required to provide service at a minimum of at least 25 Mbps (megabits per second) downstream and 3 Mbps downstream.

"This program will bring fiberoptic gig speeds to areas that would've never seen something like this in an area," said Tim May, general manager and owner of STAR Communications. "This is a long way for me, considering my grandfather started me in this business for delivery of phonebooks."

The funds can also go toward acquisition of an existing system not providing sufficient access to broadband, under certain circumstances with restrictions.

The program began in 2018 when Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. President Donald Trump in 2017 established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities.

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