What You’ll Learn

GUMBO is more than just the best new acronym in the industry. The program has catapulted Louisiana’s broadband office forward into a leading role across the country.

Guest Speaker

Thomas Tyler

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability. 

 

Intro: Rural broadband today is a production of Pioneer Utility Resources. Broadband, we need it for work and for school, for our health and our economy. What’s being done to bring broadband Internet access within reach of every American? Let’s talk about it now on Rural Broadband Today.

Andy Johns: As you might tell from the Zydeco music there in the intro, we are going to Louisiana. Thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the issues and the people shaping the rural broadband story across America.

I’m your host, Andy Johns, and this program is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the story of rural broadband.

I’m delighted to be joined on this episode by Thomas Tyler, who is the Deputy Director for Connect LA and Louisiana. Thomas, thank you for joining me.

Thomas Tyler: Thank you, Andy.

Andy Johns: I was fortunate to meet Thomas at the Fiber Broadband Association event in Baton Rouge over the summer. And I appreciate you taking the time to share, talk with me, and share your story with our listeners. Now, if any listeners out there, saw “gumbo” in the title of the episode, were here looking for talking about Cajun cooking, they’re going to be disappointed because Thomas gumbo means something different in the context of your office. Tell us a little bit about what “GUMBO” means.

Thomas Tyler: Sure thing, Andy. Yeah, so you know, last year we launched our first statewide broadband grant program with the acronym “GUMBO.” So that stands for, “Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities. From what we have heard, it is the best-named program in the country. Everyone is very impressed with it; everybody wants a little bowl of gumbo, you know, so…

Andy Johns: In an industry full of acronyms, that one’s shoulders above all of them, yep.

Thomas Tyler: Very easy to remember.

Andy Johns: Yep, so with that program, my perception from talking to folks around the industry is just a couple of years ago, Louisiana was behind. There were a lot of states, Minnesota was one of the leaders, and Tennessee has done very well, kind of moving things forward with the state broadband program, but you guys have shot past a lot of folks.

I was at a big broadband conference out in Las Vegas last week; and somebody mentioned, you know, when they were talking about three states who were doing it, right, they talked about, I think it was Minnesota, Georgia, and Louisiana. So, you guys have gone, at least in my perception, you guys have gone from being behind to being one of the leaders in this office in a program like this. Is that a fair assessment?

Thomas Tyler: From what we hear it is, for an office that’s rather young, we really… It was formed in 2020, but it really got stood up in March of 2021. I came on in June of 2021. And really, our mindset was to look around the country and see who was doing things right and try to try to mimic that and mirror what others were doing to bring it to Louisiana and add our own flavor.

I think a big key portion of why we’ve been so successful and why we have gained such notoriety around the country is, the support that we have across the state, from a local level to, you know, statewide elected official level, up to our governor. So, you know, everybody recognizes the need for broadband connectivity across our state; and that’s part of why we’ve had such good success with our office and our program thus far.

Andy Johns: Now, let’s set the scene for folks about broadband access in Louisiana. When looking at the stats, you guys are number 18, at least in 2021. You’re number 18 In terms of access to gigabit infrastructure among states. And you were number 30, in the same timeframe in 2021,  Louisiana was number 30 overall in internet access, ranking the states. Set the scene for us a little bit, what does connectivity look like in Louisiana right now?

Thomas Tyler: I would imagine those rankings are somewhat overinflated. It’s pretty abysmal. I mean, you can see the map behind me, it’s got a lot of red dots on it where we visited across the state. A key part of what we do is stakeholder engagement and having discussions with local leaders, municipal leaders, and even residents where they are. It’s a key part of what makes us successful; the problem across Louisiana is widespread. Once we get outside of the major cities, you start to get to areas with legacy infrastructure and connectivity that may just not be there. There are a ton of citizens out there that do not have good access to high-speed internet, and we’re looking to remedy that with our grant program.

So, not only is that a challenge, just the access issue, but we also have a digital literacy issue where there are people outside the state that do not have the wherewithal, or the device, or the understanding to get online and understand how it can have a positive effect on their life.

And the last thing that I would say is a large hurdle to overcome is in regards to affordability. So these are not new challenges, these are things that are seen across the country, and everyone’s having to deal with them in their own way, but from our perspective, those are key to understanding and helping remedy the situation.

I mean, we can provide broadband access to everyone, but if it’s not affordable, and it’s not understood on how it can improve their quality of life, it’s not going to be helpful for those residents. So those are some of the challenges that we’re working through, hopefully, we’re coming up with good, forward-thinking plans to deal with them.

Andy Johns: I’m really glad you touched on the adoption portion, not just building the network, but getting folks to adopt broadband. It’s so important, and I’m glad that y’all are thinking in that direction.

You guys have done a good job of highlighting the mix of broadband solutions in both bigger cities and small towns. On your site, you’ve got different stories about some of those, some of the solutions that folks in Louisiana are, are doing to bring that connectivity. What are some of the solutions that you’ve seen across the state that stand out to you?

Thomas Tyler: It’s really interesting, because I mentioned, like, we go out and do these stakeholder engagement meetings and just go out and visit small towns across the state. It is actually a personal goal and a personal accomplishment of mine, but I actually visited our 64th, parish/county, so here in Louisiana, we call that parishes, so I was able to touch every part of the state, you know. We have previous roles in this one, so that was pretty cool. But what’s really interesting about that is, as we go to all of these different locations and meet with different people, we learn and hear these different stories about people that have really changed their own lives just by and the issues that they’ve overcome, to try to get access to the internet to either further their career or their education or things like that.

We visited a community up in northwest Louisiana right at the corner near Arkansas and Texas, where a lady would go to the library to take classes so she could move up to a management position from her McDonald’s job. Those are the types of things where they may not have the internet at home, but they’re trying to, you know, go above and beyond to further their own lives and their livelihood for their family.

So what’s really great to see, is to go to these different communities and see what works in the communities, whether it’s fiber to the libraries, or whether it’s in Washington, Louisiana, where we had a local mayor who set up a computer lab with some old computers and space near their mayor’s office, they were able to establish things like that. So we see different avenues of connectivity across the state where every type of stakeholder is working to further their own communities. A lot of what we’re hearing, we take to heart. We want our state residents to have a better quality of life; one of the key things to do is through broadband connectivity. So as we move through and think about the future of our office, and how we want to go forward there, these are key things that we need to think about.

Andy Johns: Absolutely, and those are good reminders of why you’re doing what you do all day, every day.

A couple of major bullet points I want to bring up. So you guys were among the first batch to receive approval from the US Treasury for your plan to spend $176 million from the American Rescue Plan. You guys were also maybe the first in terms of recipients from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that went into effect. What do you attribute some of that success to? Those are obviously some headline-grabbing numbers and headline-grabbing programs, and you guys were right there on the tip of the spear to start bringing that to Louisiana. What do you attribute that success to?

Thomas Tyler: Yeah, so I’ll unpack both of those with the two different programs and start with the one that’s kind of administered by the Treasury. With the CPF dollars, we moved quickly to establish what our plan was going to be last fall, to get that over to Treasury and to get feedback on it from Treasury. You know, to say, “Look, this is what we want to do. This is how we want to spend it. Tell us, you know, what we need to do to improve”.

And that relationship with the administrators and the personnel there, I think really helped kick us into that first round. The ability for us to work quickly, to take criticisms, constructive criticisms, and change our plans and adjust them accordingly, I think that’s what really helped. And even you know, with that funding, actually with CPF, we’ve spent the vast majority of it. It’s been allocated to GUMBO grant projects with our first round. So, we had 80- something projects that we have funded.

We attended a groundbreaking a month or so ago for the first GUMBO grant project. So pretty much all that CPF funding has been exhausted, say, for a few million dollars extra. Two projects around the state that are going to serve over 80,000 locations where the vast majority 98-99% are fiber to the home.  Huge improvement that we can start to see over the next six to 18 months. I think the average build time for most of these projects was in the 12 to 18-month range.

And I even had an email yesterday or this week from one of our contractors who said, ” They’re halfway done with some of their projects, and they’re looking to start receiving some of the funds”. We’ve had a lot of contractors and a lot of internet service providers getting out there building what they need to connect their residents in those areas.

Another key part about the CPF dollars that we awarded, a lot of the funding actually went to small and mid-sized businesses based in Louisiana. So, it wasn’t just the big companies that you would typically expect that got funding. While a lot of them did have good projects and were funded, a lot of the smaller companies also had a good hand in how they portray their projects to the state. And they scored high on their application.

So, we’re proud of that; we’re proud that a lot of the workforce that’s going to be utilized in Louisiana is coming from that, and that it’s going to be local people building local networks for residents, so that’s really key.

Andy Johns: Let’s put a pin in that and dive in just another second on that. So, when you’re talking about those, are most of those existing? In my mind, when you say some of those businesses, you’re talking electric co-ops, telcos, who are there, locally-based, those are the kind of folks, or did you have some new startups? Or is it mainly folks that have been in those communities for a long time?

Thomas Tyler: They’ve been in the communities for a few years on average. I don’t know that we had any new startups that actually had submitted an application for it. With our grant program to apply, it’s either a co-op or an internet service provider to keep things simple. That’s the type of….it allows us to get information from companies that have done this before and have participated in a grant program. Those are the types of things that we were able to learn on how to go through this application process and may make a few changes in the future, but for the most part, the vast majority of our projects are underway. We recently sent out grant agreements for the companies. Their shovels are in the ground ready to build right now, so really good from that perspective.

To jump back to your other question in regards to BEAD, so yes. We had the inaugural statewide broadband summit that we hosted back in August/September with NTIA, and that was where it was announced that we were going to be the first state to receive our BEAD and DE planning funds. So, the first dollars from the infrastructure bill, we’re headed to Louisiana. That’s about $3 million for our state to start the planning process with that, so we were really proud of that. And we’ve actually been hosting a lot of different stakeholder engagement meetings in regard to digital equity over the past few weeks. We have a few this week, we have a few next week, and we’re planning to really dive in deep after these and have more focused stakeholder engagement meetings. So, we’ve been working through that across the state.

Really, we haven’t stopped expending those planning funds. So, we’ve got them. We’re continuing down our plan to develop our initial planning application and are in our five-year plan for BEAD and you know, the same type of planning details for DE. So, we were really excited to be one of the first states to receive the planning funds and again, show that there’s a lot of things Louisiana is last in, but broadband is not going to be one of them.

Andy Johns: I like it. It sounds good. Another one of the stats I wanted to unpack a little bit ,and it’s related to that, especially when you get to the equity piece of it, but the Wall Street Journal had said that you guys, the state of Louisiana is number one for the adoption of the Affordable Connectivity Program on a per capita basis. What do you attribute that success to? Because obviously, that’s something you guys, I mean, being number one per capita, that means you guys are doing something better than most.

Thomas Tyler: So, I attribute that strictly to a high level of communication. The real main goal with that is to get it out to every type of entity that has stakeholders that would benefit from it. So, when we looked at that last fall, we said, “Well, this is pretty simple for us to get out in front of a lot of different groups of people”. So, when you look at not only school systems, there’s a ton of people that could benefit through our local public schools across the state.

We wanted to get in front of universities where they could also push it out to recipients that would benefit from it or that would qualify for it. You look at your faith-based groups, you look at your community anchor institutions, and even you could dive in deep and go to your municipal leaders and say, “Look, you guys need to get this out to your stakeholders to your, to your groups, and let them know that this is available”.

So, I really attribute the gain in that to a a high level of consumer engagement and a high level of communication across the state, from all types of different entities that would have a group that would qualify for it.

Andy Johns: That sounds like an excellent approach, really hitting some of the folks where communities already exist to reach out. Okay, I got two last questions for you. Let’s get ou the crystal ball. Let’s look ahead. So, what are you guys working on? Obviously, there’s a whole lot more coming with BEAD when we get into next year, but what are you guys working on? And what do you see on the horizon looking ahead for broadband, either specifically in Louisiana or just across the country?

Thomas Tyler: I mean, I think that there are a few key things that we’re working on. Currently, BEAD and Digital Equity planning are our main goals right now. You know, we want to make sure that we have our Digital Equity plan drafted. We want to make sure we have our BEAD plans drafted, and we start having conversations with NTIA officials on what we want to do and how that’s going to shake out.

We’re in the process of developing our own statewide broadband map and using that to really assist us in our next grant rounds. So, you know, when GUMBO version two or GUMBO round two, or whatever you want to call it, you know, when we launch that, based on the BEAD funding. We’ll have some, maybe some small changes based on what, we’ve learned from the first round and what the requirements are for BEAD, but other than that, we’re keeping it mostly the same.

We want participation from the providers. We want participation from municipalities. We want to make sure that we’re connecting all of our locations and that we are going to serve every location with some form of broadband, so that’s really our main goal moving forward.

I’d also think that as we start to dive into the needs of the providers, as they build out these projects, you know, the key things that we have to think about are not only workforce development, but also supply chain issues that they may overcome and permitting issues that they may have across our state, so we’re taking each of those seriously.

From a workforce development perspective, our governor allocated $10 million to our community and technical college system to really start and flesh out good programs where students can go in and take a curriculum and plug and play right into these roles that the providers have.

So, we’re letting the community and technical colleges work closely with the providers to develop those curricula across our community college system and make sure that they do have a good workforce that can not only go out and build the networks, but they can go and provide maintenance or services or things like that throughout our state.

We’re taking different avenues where we’re staying engaged with the stakeholders in regard to permitting, as well as with the supply chain. You know, we haven’t heard any horror stories yet about people not being able to get material, but I would expect that that might show up at some point. So, the things that we can do as a state to assist with those, we’re looking to stay on top of.

Andy Johns: Yeah, those labor and inventory shortages are something that is a real issue for some folks. Glad that y’all are taking some steps there. I know I said two questions left but you mentioned broadband maps, so I want to jump in real quick there because there’s nothing that I’ve seen that fires up broadband executives quite like maps and the accuracy thereof.

Is there anything in particular that you guys are doing? And I think the maps are getting better, but is there anything in particular that you guys are doing there in Louisiana to try to get those maps as accurate as possible?

Thomas Tyler: So, this past legislative session in 2021, we passed legislation to establish the state’s first statewide broadband map, utilizing the information that ISPs provide to the FCC. So, whenever they provide it to the FCC, they have to get it to us. Pretty boilerplate kind of stuff there.

I think the interesting part here will be to see how the FCC maps shake out in regard to the BEAD allocation. Because once that happens, that’s going to be, for all intents and purposes, that would be the map you would want to use. Really, from our perspective, though, if there are still issues with that map or iterations that have to occur to get an accurate picture, we want to have the ability to have our own map in a place where we could run grant rounds without running into issues with how areas are represented. So, it’s protected from that measure, but really, I think that that’s kind of a moving target for a lot of different states is trying to determine the best way to analyze the data or challenge the data or things like that. So, we’ll keep pushing forward as we can, and, if we have to make changes or come up with different scenarios or ideas, we can do that.

Andy Johns: The last question for you, because I know your time is short, but what advice do you have for somebody else who’s in another state, maybe they’re in a similar position or broadband office or somewhere else, and they look at Louisiana, how quick y’all have gone from, from zero to 60, or close to it on the broadband office, what advice would you have for them when they’re trying to move things forward as you guys have?

Thomas Tyler: I think communication is key and having a good relationship with your key stakeholders across the state is important to have in place. A lot of what is happening is not new. You can reach out to us. You can reach out to other states that are leaders in this space, and have discussions and ask questions. There is no need to completely reinvent a lot of the stuff that we’ve done. If there’s something that’s working in Louisiana, take it and put it in place in your state.

There are a few states that are around our state, Texas and Arkansas, that are taking our plans, and really putting them in place in the best respect for their residents. So, there’s a lot that can be done, but there’s a lot that’s already been done, and there’s no need to go back and reinvent the wheel here. Reach out to your statewide broadband network and say, “Look, this is something we’re having a challenge with, how are you handling it?”

We’re happy to facilitate those calls. You can visit our website, connect.la.gov, or you can email us at connect@la.gov. And we’re happy to have those conversations and assist people where we can. We want to help them and be a leader in the space, and the way to do that is by assisting others.

Andy Johns: Excellent, well said. Well, Thomas, I appreciate you taking the time and sharing some of the good things y’all are doing there in Louisiana. Thanks for your time.

Thomas Tyler: I appreciate it, Andy. Thanks for having me.

Andy Johns: He is Thomas Tyler, the deputy director for Connect LA. I’m your host, Andy Johns with Pioneer, and we appreciate you for taking the time to listen and learn more about the broadband story.

Outro: Rural Broadband Today is brought to you by Pioneer Utility Resources. Rural Broadband Today is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.