Rural Vernon Parish residents lobby for broadband access

Published 7:00 am Thursday, August 4, 2022

Residents in Anacoco and Hornbeck are fighting to bring fiber internet access to their homes amid pushback from local providers.
As state representatives and municipal leaders battle to bring connectivity to underserved communities across the state, the two communities in Vernon Parish are facing protests from Suddenlink representatives who claim they already provide those services to the area.
Vernon Parish Chamber of Commerce executive director Logan Morris said the cable and internet provider claims that 738 homes within the more than 2,000 hoping to be included in the latest move to obtain funding for the high-speed internet connections in rural areas are already able to obtain reliable internet from its own service map, but Morris said residents say different.
“Some of the addresses that they claim already have high-speed internet do not even have a house there. In other cases, there might be addresses that they (Suddenlink) claim has access, but on the day that they said this that resident didn’t even have a connection because their service kept dropping. So, we are fighting back to help prove that reliable internet is not readily available in these communities,” Morris stated.
Within those numbers of households that are unserved or underserved, Morris said Vernon Parish officials also believe an additional 2,000 homes could also benefit from fiber internet connections.
The Vernon Parish Chamber of Commerce has been spearheading efforts to bring reliable, high-speed internet to all corners of the parish since 2019, but it was during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 that Morris said the true needs were realized and their mission gained momentum.
“When schools were closed and at-home instruction was implemented, there were many households in our parish that were hurt by that because they didn’t have access to high-speed internet and couldn’t support the learning needs their student had,” Morris stated.
Since that year, high-speed internet needs have only grown. Morris said he believes reliable, high-speed internet has become a basic need in all homes and that it should be considered a public utility, and governed as one.
“I really do believe it has become as important as clean drinking water. It is becoming vital for even basic needs now to have reliable internet and I believe it’s time for the Public Service Commission to regulate it. We now use the internet to communicate with our health professionals, to pay our bills and monitor our bank accounts. The importance of connectivity and having high-speed internet to rely on is only going to continue to become more prevalent in our daily lives, and soon it will be nearly impossible to function without it,” Morris stated.
With this in mind, the chamber created the Vernon Parish Broadband Commission. Made up of local leaders including Vernon Parish Police Jury president Jim Tuck, Simpson Mayor Vickie Standifer, Hornbeck Mayor Clarence Beebe, and Anacoco mayor Keith Lewing, among others, the group has strived to be included in the Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO) grant that aims to connect homes to the fiber internet being laid out across the state.
According to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ announcement in July, an investment of $130 million is being dedicated across 50 parishes in the state to bring internet service to underserved areas. Vernon Parish was not included in the first phase announced earlier this month, but Morris said that through its efforts to disprove Suddenlink’s claims, the VP Broadband Commission hopes to be included in a second phase expected to be announced in October.
In an effort to prove the lack of high-speed connections, Morris said the group compiled a list of internet speeds in the contested areas and already this week, he said they are seeing results.
On Monday, Suddenlink reduced the number of households in its protest from 738 to 138. Morris said that it was affirmation that their voice is being heard, but admits that there is still a battle ahead.
“I am glad to see that we are moving forward, but that being said we are targeting that 138 to prove they still need internet access. We do not want to give up on them,” Morris said.
The VP Broadband Commission is preparing to file its appeal letter to the Office of Broadband and Connectivity in Baton Rouge this week.