LUS Fiber included in state broadband funds at last minute

LUS Fiber drive thru service center
Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

LUS Fiber was finally squeezed in at the 11th hour to a bill creating an ambitious grant program to provide broadband service to deprived areas of the state, overcoming complaints about competition between the public and private sectors. But it’s not clear yet what areas will benefit from the infusion of funds.

HB648 by Rep. Daryl Deshotels, R-Marksville, establishes the Granting Underserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO) initiative, which will distribute about $180 million in federal assistance to expand internet service to homes and businesses. It was introduced in April and was amended four times in the House Commerce Committee and twice on the House floor before being passed 94-0 on May 11. But the bill still limited recipients of the funds to “private” entities, thereby excluding LUS Fiber.

It wasn’t until Monday that Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, whose rural area stands to benefit from GUMBO, offered a floor amendment expanding eligibility to providers “operated by a local government if the local government is compliant with the Local Government Fair Competition Act.”

Fiber is the only such entity in the state. The bill then passed the Senate 38-0 and the House agreed to the amended version Tuesday, 97-0.

GUMBO will be administered by the Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity established earlier this year by Gov. John Bel Edwards within the Division of Administration. 

Monique Boulet, CEO of the seven-parish Acadiana Planning Commission, disputes the argument that LUS Fiber competes with privately owned providers of broadband service in rural areas because private providers “aren’t doing it.”

Asked how much she expects LUS Fiber to receive from the grant program, Boulet says, “We haven’t come up with any numbers yet. We have to wait and see the guidance they (the Division of Administration) give us. But it’s going to be significant.”

Now led by its first independent director, Ryan Meche, Fiber is emerging from a cloud of scandal and doubt about its financial solvency. On Wednesday, Meche told the Daily Advertiser the business development opportunities before Fiber were “limitless” because of the huge influx of federal money. 

Fiber is owned by the City of Lafayette, but Boulet explains it can “operate pretty much anywhere in the state.” She contends that LUS Fiber will use grant money to “partner with a provider” rather than compete with them to bring broadband to areas currently unserviced by private entities like Cox. 

“It depends on the community’s structure,” she says. “We just don’t want to eliminate [Fiber] as an option. We have to work it out on a case-by-case basis. We’ve done a lot of work over the last two years. We want to see the money invested in the best possible technologies throughout the region.”

The White House is pushing to roll out 100 Mbps fiber infrastructure, which Fiber provides, through its various broadband initiatives.  

Ville Platte, at one time reported to have the 5th slowest internet speeds in the country, has telephone lines dating to the 1890s, Boulet says. Fiber recently partnered with a private provider to extend broadband from southern Lafayette Parish to downtown New Iberia, she notes. Funded by a federal grant, it was the municipal telecom’s first such programmatic venture outside Lafayette Parish. 

“We just don’t know how good we’ve got it in Lafayette,” she says.