A Look at Louisiana's Draft Digital Equity Plan
Wednesday, June 14, 2023
A Look at Louisiana's Draft Digital Equity Plan
All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.
As states act to capitalize on federal broadband funding, Louisiana has been leading the way. It was the first state to receive federal approval for broadband funding from the American Rescue Plan Act's Capital Projects Fund and the first to be awarded planning grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Louisiana continues to lead the way on digital equity planning; last month, the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development & Connectivity (known as Connect Louisiana or ConnectLA) released a draft digital equity plan for the state and is seeking public reaction to it. Here we look at the current state of digital equity in the state as well as Louisiana's vision for digital equity.
I. Barriers to Achieving Digital Equity in Louisiana
Louisiana views broadband access and affordability as the primary hurdles that must be passed before an individual can adopt broadband. High-speed internet service is not equally available or adopted across geographic areas or population groups within the state. Rural parishes (your state might call them "counties")—especially those in northern districts of the state—lack the degree of connectedness that is seen in more populous southern districts of the state. Discrepancies in access can be attributed to inadequate infrastructure in some cases, but even within areas where high-speed infrastructure is widely available, ConnectLA finds households who lack broadband subscriptions, indicating that physical access alone is not an adequate indicator of broadband adoption or equity.
Broadband connections are available in nearly 65 percent of census blocks in Louisiana. In approximately 20 percent of census blocks, no internet service is available at all and in 27.5 percent of the state’s census blocks, download speeds are below 25 Megabits per second (Mbps). Approximately 7.54 percent of census blocks are served by networks that deliver speeds between 25 and 100 Mbps. Generally, urban parishes tend to have higher percentages of census blocks with access to broadband than rural parishes.(1) Gaps in internet access service are much more pronounced in northern Louisiana than in the southeast where more parishes are classified as urban.
About 85 percent of households in Louisiana have a broadband internet subscription. The rate of household broadband subscriptions aligns well with income brackets. The share of households with a high-speed internet subscription increases as income levels rise. High-earning Louisianans are almost as likely to have access to a broadband subscription (93.9%) as the average high-earning U.S. resident (95.6%). In contrast, Louisiana households with low income are far less likely to subscribe to high-speed internet (59.5%) than the average American household in the same income bracket (67.5%). Approximately two-thirds (64%) of Louisianians say that the cost of broadband internet is the reason they do not have it.
Specifically, concerning "covered populations" in Louisiana:
Rural Louisiana faces significantly lower levels of broadband access compared to its urban and suburban counterparts. Across all focus groups conducted, the majority of community members who identified as living in a ‘rural’ area stated that their main challenge to using broadband internet was the lack of access. In rural Evangeline Parish, 15.7 percent of residents are considered underserved and, according to a data analysis of two million speed test results by highspeedinternet.com, Ville Platte, the largest city in Evangeline Parish, has an average speed of 7.8 Mbps, third lowest in the nation. Affordability is also a major digital equity issue in rural Louisiana. On average, annual household income in rural Louisiana is $10,000 less than urban households and the poverty rate is higher. Nearly 1-in-4 individuals in a rural parish live below the poverty line, compared to less than 1-in-5 in urban and suburban parishes. Rural residents who attended digital equity focus groups across Louisiana made it clear that digital literacy skills are a major barrier to not just digital equity, but economic, and educational equity as well.
Just 71 percent of older adults in Louisiana have broadband access at home. And Louisiana residents aged 65-and-over are the least likely covered population to own a computer. Some may live in rural areas where subscriptions are less reliable, or they may opt out of purchasing a subscription due to concerns over price or relevance. Over 90,000 Louisiana residents at or over the age of 65 have incomes below the federal poverty level. Some older adults may be on a fixed income and may not have the financial resources to afford a subscription.
Louisiana has the second-highest incarceration rate of all 50 U.S. states, with a rate of 564 incarcerated individuals per 100,000 residents—60 percent higher than that of the national average. For those who are in a state prison or parish jail, internet access has increasingly become a necessity. The availability and quality of internet access within prisons and jails are problematic due to the rural setting and limited infrastructure capacity of many of these facilities. Technology in prisons and jails is highly limited. Internet access is often treated as a privilege – individuals who are incarcerated are altogether prohibited from accessing the internet or they are allowed heavily restricted, limited access often at a monetary cost. Unstable, restricted, or altogether unavailable access to usable internet services hinders the ability of those who are incarcerated to develop their digital skills. Although smartphones are the primary means of communication and information gathering used by individuals upon reentry, many of these individuals do not have the digital skills required to properly use these devices to their fullest potential. Lack of digital skills is a major barrier for returning citizens in accessing jobs in an increasingly digital landscape.
In 2022, United Way reported that 36 percent of veterans living in Louisiana were living in an Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) household. While not all of these individuals are living in poverty (as defined by the federal poverty level), it’s notable that more than one-third of veterans in the state are low-income.
Approximately 1 in 3 adults in Louisiana have one or more disabilities; of the more than 1.12 million Louisiana residents who live with a disability, nearly 270,000 (24 percent) are living below the federal poverty threshold. An additional almost 393,000 (35 percent) are living in an ALICE household. Access to broadband and the assistive/adaptive technology to use it are essential elements for these families and households to thrive in today’s digital society. Without these costly specialized technologies, many disabled people cannot properly utilize broadband services. The additional costs of specialized software and hardware are a significant barrier to the disabled public. Another important component is the training required to successfully use these technologies. Compounded with the economic cost of assistive/adaptive technologies, the lack of trained professionals and cost of technological training further exacerbate the barriers that those with disabilities face in fully utilizing broadband services.
In the 2019-2020 school year, English language learners made up approximately 4.3% of enrollment at public elementary and secondary schools in Louisiana. Though Black is the largest minority group in Louisiana (33%), Hispanic is still the largest non-English speaking group (5.6%), followed by Asian (1.9%) and American Indian/Alaska Native (0.8%). Individuals with a language barrier are more likely to be living in poverty and to have received less education. Stakeholders reported that internet accessibility and affordability are core problems contributing to the digital divide of these often low-income, immigrant communities. Stakeholders also shared that language barriers and the digital isolation that results from this divide not only exacerbate education and language barriers but also worsen mental health issues.
Members of the Black community have lower access to broadband subscriptions compared to other races and ethnicities in Louisiana, while Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander households, respectively, have the highest access. Across focus groups with the Black population in Louisiana, the lack of access was one of the major factors discussed when it came to digital equity. Black individuals who attended focus groups and identified as living in a rural area said high-speed internet services are inaccessible due to the lack of infrastructure and service providers in their areas. In urban areas of Louisiana, broadband penetration rates are generally very high, whereas affordability of service is the main problem, and affordability was a frequently discussed topic across all of the Black population focus groups. In Louisiana, median household income for Black households was $33,576, while median household income for White households was almost double at $64,597. As of 2021, approximately 440,904 Black Louisianians had income levels below the poverty line, or approximately 31 percent of the Black population, higher than any other demographic group in the state. In Louisiana, 76 percent of Black children lived in households below the ALICE threshold compared to 46 percent of White children. For those living in poverty, affording broadband services and computer equipment to participate in telehealth services is often out of reach. And, for many Black residents in Louisiana, having an income above poverty levels does not guarantee access to and affordability of technologies. Participants in focus groups stated that affordable service is an absolute “necessity.” Digital skills and the adoption of technology into Black communities in Louisiana was an extremely important topic brought up in all focus groups.
II. Vision, Strategy, and Objectives
Louisiana’s vision is that digital equity will be achieved for all residents and communities. Digital equity for Louisiana means that all residents will have access to affordable broadband, opportunities to obtain the appropriate devices, accessible applications, and support to acquire the digital skills needed to improve their quality of life. By 2029, the necessary structures will be in place to sustain Louisiana’s work toward digital equity for all Louisianians.
To make this vision real, ConnectLA proposes five goals, objectives for reaching them, and key performance indicators to track progress.
Goal 1: Broadband Availability & Affordability
The goal of achieving digital equity is reliant upon Louisianans having access to broadband both geographically and financially. Louisiana will improve and expand digital infrastructure serving covered populations while also improving affordability for lower-income residents. The state should:
- Identify areas without broadband and maintain updated information on areas and the covered populations in those areas with unmet needs. The state should track clearly defined metrics that combine population size, population density, and the demographic profile of served and unserved areas to ensure that future plans move the state toward a more equitable distribution of services.
- Ensure public broadband infrastructure dollars are spent equitably to improve access and affordability for covered populations. For funds disbursed through grant programs, prioritize applications that promote competition, or use other targeted approaches to reduce the long-term cost of broadband for covered populations.
- Coordinate future initiatives addressing affordability to ensure that they are targeted to fill gaps in federal and local supports and equitably improve access for covered populations.
- Develop a mechanism for long-term public oversight to promote broadband availability, reliability, and affordability for covered populations.
The key performance indicator for this goal is broadband subscriptions, especially for covered populations. The long-term goal is to reach 100 percent adoption for all Louisianians.
Goal 2: Device Availability and Affordability
Beyond availability and affordability of broadband service, residents require devices to fully take advantage of the opportunities that come with a broadband connection. Louisiana will support, promote, and create opportunities to ensure that residents have access to affordable smart devices. The state should:
- Dedicate public funding to support access to devices, leveraging bulk purchasing power where possible to reduce costs.
- Encourage and promote private sector efforts to increase access to devices and/or lower the costs of devices through computer refurbishing and recycling.
- Conduct outreach to covered populations to provide information about vendors who provide discounted, or low-cost refurbished devices.
- Develop a mechanism for long-term public oversight to promote availability and affordability of devices for covered populations.
The key performance indicator for this goal is device ownership (computer, smartphone, tablet). The near-term target is to reduce the ownership gap relative to the statewide average by 50 percent for each covered population. The long-term target is to achieve ownership equal to the statewide average for each covered population.
Goal 3: Online Accessibility and Inclusivity
Ensure that state resources and activities delivered or accessed online are designed to be accessible for all covered populations in Louisiana. The state should:
- Align efforts across state government to ensure information provided online meets current accessibility standards.
- Ensure that state-run programs using online processes for applications or to manage services are designed for maximum accessibility and integrated as much as possible to simplify access to the public.
- Develop a long-term mechanism to continue improving accessibility and inclusivity as technology and unmet needs for covered populations change over time.
The key performance indicator for this goal is State of Louisiana websites that fail an accessibility audit. The long term target is to have no such websites.
Goal 4: Digital Skills
To achieve digital equity, Louisiana must ensure that residents have both the basic and technically proficient digital skills to function in the digital world. Louisiana will increase and promote opportunities for covered populations to develop digital skills and monitor progress toward more equitable attainment of digital skills. The state should:
- Establish a Statewide Framework for Digital Skills Attainment.
- Monitor and promote ongoing activities related to digital skill development across the public sector to help residents identify and access digital skill training.
- Cultivate and promote efforts by the private sector and community-based organizations to provide digital skill training and technical support to covered populations.
- Develop and maintain technical support for residents to ensure that state-run programs using online processes can be accessed and used broadly.
The key performance indicator for this goal is the number of individuals completing a digital skill training or program by covered population. The near-term target is to reduce the skill attainment gap relative to the statewide average by 50 percent for each covered population. The long-term target is to bring the skill attainment rate gap to zero relative to the statewide average for each covered population while continuing to expand participation in digital skill programming.
Goal 5: Online Privacy and Cybersecurity
The state will promote best practices in the design and maintenance of information technology systems and support efforts to protect and educate the public on online privacy and cybersecurity. The state should:
- Expand the mission of Louisiana’s Cybersecurity Commission to ensure the unique needs of covered populations are included in all planning activities and recommendations.
- Promote state policies that are sensitive to online privacy and cybersecurity in consideration of the unique needs of covered populations.
- Ensure that online privacy and cybersecurity educational resources for public sector employees are designed to accommodate the baseline knowledge and familiarity of individuals from all covered populations.
- Cultivate and promote efforts by the private sector and community-based organizations to provide online privacy and cybersecurity training to covered populations.
The number of individuals who completed an internet safety program is the key performance indicator for this goal. The near-term target is to reduce the safety training rate gap relative to statewide average by 50 percent for each covered population. The long-term target is to bring the safety training rate gap to zero relative to the statewide average for each covered population while continuing to expand participation in digital skill programming.
III. ConnectLA Seeks Public Feedback
ConnectLA released this draft plan in May 2023 and is asking broadband stakeholders to review it with a critical eye. ConnectLA seeks constructive feedback to improve the plan before submitting it to the NTIA. The public comment period will close on July 7, 2023, at which point ConnectLA will use the public's suggestions to create an updated plan. Comments may be submitted here.
- The Louisiana State Legislature defines parishes with a population of below 100,000 as “rural.”
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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