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Same concerns then scuttle broadband project now

It’s déjà vu all over again for a broadband access project in Louisiana that saw the same mistakes repeated, leading to its demise both times.

Recently, the Louisiana Board of Regents announced that it would not proceed with a plan to extend its high-speed broadband network into the state’s school districts. It would have used its own funds, leveraged with a 90 percent federal government match, to do this, but only a handful of districts responded affirmatively to the offer by a deadline, so it withdrew the offer.

Higher education and Department of Education officials expressed uncertainty, if not disbelief, over why too few districts seemed interested. But representatives of the districts argued that a lack of information and compressed schedule made many districts hesitate.

This echoes the outcome of the Regents’ last foray into managing a broadband project designed to leverage its resources beyond higher education. In 2009, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, a spending bill stumped to jumpstart the economy but which, if anything, did the opposite, included something called the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program. This threw federal cash onto entities to spend on initiatives to increase broadband access.

Along with several executive branch agencies, the Regents decided to make a grab for this money, eventually spawning a request for $80.6 million to provide access to rural areas including schools, along with over $14 million of state funds. They took the lead because of their oversight of the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, a high-speed, high-capacity networking structure. However, the Regents got the ball rolling slowly and matters became worse when the contractor they hired seemed too relaxed and/or unable to handle the load in the time allotted as well.

With a deadline approaching, former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Division of Administration stepped in to restructure the program, raising even more questions to the federal government, which had a distinct set of political objectives it wanted the grant to fulfill and would not budge on the timeline, as the former Pres. Barack Obama Administration faced a losing battle to make the spending bill turn out an economic success and needed accomplishments immediately to produce that impression. With an impossibly short window for delivery and all the chaos up to that point, it collapsed into program termination, one of only two out of 223 authorized to suffer this fate.

In retrospect, the Jindal Administration made the right call to assume control late in the game to safeguard state funds, even if this meant letting the federal government scrap the idea. It recognized the bureaucratic-centric structure created a host of problems – a similar approach concerning emergency response networks in Mississippi started slowly, then got caught up in changing policy emphases that has left this unfinished project scheduled for completion in three years, almost a decade behind schedule – and wanted to enter into lease arrangements to have the infrastructure built more quickly.

Note how the conditions remain the same – lack of information coming from the Regents and a compressed timeline on accomplishing things combining to scuttle the notion. Apparently, lessons went unlearned from years ago.

Perhaps that won’t happen a third time. As it seems the Regents wished to apply for a Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries grant, this becomes open for applications every year (although this has a cap on total assistance offered that could fill up), if it wishes to try again next year it may – although the public may wonder, with all of the complaining in recent years about cuts in taxpayer subsidization of higher education why it might wish to divert several million dollars to this effort – it has that option.

In particular, schools would have to understand their discounted rate obligation going forward, which may not make the program cost effective beyond initial infrastructure costs. If the Regents can meet these concerns, then perhaps the third time will turn out as the charm.

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