Government & Politics
 

Poorer communities continue to suffer lack of broadband access — and related opportunity

The Lens is reposting this story, first published March 23, in light of news that The Times-Picayune will be cutting back to three published newspapers a week, focusing its efforts instead on online reporting. The accompanying map shows the wide swaths of the city where broadband internet access is not prevalent — meaning people there are not as likely to get the news that the TP will produce. 

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Subscribers to high-speed Internet services in New Orleans are generally white and in the higher income brackets, according to a new nationwide study that also found  Louisiana lags the rest of the country when it comes to accessing broadband technology.

This issue is about more than convenience for watching movies and listening to music; increasingly, high-speed Internet access is essential for effective education, civic engagement and economic opportunity.

Lacking broadband access to the Web can be hugely detrimental to one’s future prospects, said Josh Levy, the Internet campaign director with Freepress.net, a national organization working to promote universal access to communications.

“People who run small businesses depend on high speed broadband to get work,” he said. “It hurts people’s ability to get educated. If you’re looking for a job, you need to be able to get online to do that. You can’t write and send a resume on a cellphone.”

A joint investigation among The Lens, the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University examined broadband subscription rates across New Orleans and Louisiana, drawing on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Communications Commission. Click here for more information on the methodology.

This map lets you click on your neighborhood and see broadband subscription rates over time.

Of course, having access to the high-speed Internet and taking advantage of it are two different things.

In the Lower 9th Ward, David Eber runs the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. At the nonprofit’s offices on Chartres Street, he pays for Broadband Internet access through Cox Communications and runs community engagement initiatives on issues such as food security and blight reduction, through a variety of channels, including a blog and e-newsletter. But it is difficult to engage citizens who aren’t online, he said.

“Most folks down here don’t have the Internet,” Eber said. “If everyone had it, it would be a lot easier because if we’re planning an event we can’t just send out an email. We’re working on setting up a block captain program so that we can contact people who do have access to the Internet, and have them contact their neighbors. But it’s not the easiest thing in the world to engage people who aren’t online.”

David Eber. Photo by Matt Davis

Around the corner, Ward McClendon runs the Ninth Ward Village community center, which has seven computers available for residents to use. He pays about $400 a month to Cox Communications for broadband access and telephones, and he said the service is in heavy demand.

“It’s so important to have Internet access,” he said. “After Katrina, a lot of people lost their property because they couldn’t access the information the needed about it. People need to apply for jobs, and just to do their everyday business, but they can’t afford it at home.”

Ward McClendon. Photo by Matt Davis

McClendon said, however, that securing Internet access for people in the community is hardly the top priority at the moment. Seven years after Katrina, the area is still without a permanent fire station and there is just one school. McClendon would like to see a fire station completed so that his insurance premiums start to fall, and more Lower 9th Ward residents can consider returning to the neighborhood.

To organize community events, McClendon fliers the neighborhood and works his cellphone, rather than relying on social networking or emails.

In McClendon’s computer lab, Oliver Butler, 20, was updating his Facebook profile on a recent afternoon. He’s used the computers to apply for a dozen jobs in catering, construction, and to study for his drivers’ license, he said. Unfortunately Butler has had little luck with the applications, but considers the Internet access — which he doesn’t have at home — vital for his prospects.

Oliver Butler. Photo by Matt Davis

Government officials nationwide have undertaken efforts to remove the financial barriers to broadband access, with the goal of providing a free or low-cost system. Some started then stumbled, some ran into political and philosophical barriers, and some succeeded. Examples of all three situations can be found in Louisiana.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans officials planned for and began a municipal broadband effort to provide wide access, but that was dashed by harsh economic realities and then snakebit by political corruption. Statewide, a public effort to expand access in rural areas was canceled when Gov. Bobby Jindal refused to accept the terms of a federal grant for the work. Officials in Layfayette created their own municipal subscription network that’s been held up as a model effort, a service that was recently featured in USA Today.

Orleans Parish has 40 percent to 60 percent broadband subscription rates, which compares poorly with most metropolitan counties nationwide, which average in the 60 percent to 80 percent range. Louisiana is ranked 44th out of 50 states in terms of broadband subscription, with just 51 percent of residents subscribing, according to data compiled by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. The average state has 60 percent broadband subscription.

The New Orleans data show that wealthy, white Uptown New Orleans has subscription rates of between 80 and 100 percent, and suburban areas such as Metairie and Belle Chasse are similarly well served. Meanwhile poorer, more African American areas such as the Lower 9th Ward have broadband subscription rates of between 0 and 40 percent.

Statewide, there is also an urban-rural divide in broadband access, with data showing that Orleans Parish as a whole has it’s 40 percent to 60 percent access, but rural areas of the state show subscription rates between at 0 to 20 percent.

••

In 2006, the City of New Orleans struck a deal with Atlanta-based Earthlink to build a free municipal broadband network for the city. Former city technology chief Greg Meffert hailed the deal as a “lifeline to businesses and citizens who are in devastated areas or otherwise can’t afford access to the Internet.”

But after spending $4 million to install the network, Earthlink shut it down in May 2008, citing a low level of usage.

“The city of New Orleans has not picked up that ball, pretty much since the deal went down,” said Craig Setttles, an independent analyst of municipal broadband issues and author of a book called Fighting The Good Fight for Municipal Wireless. “It’s kind of a shame. A lot of the companies that were trying to get into these markets, like Earthlink, had bad business plans and failed as a result.”

Neither Earthlink nor Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration responded to questions about what has happened to the network.

Users seeking high speed access now hope to find the stray unsecured network, visit a business that offers it, or subscribe to one of several providers for about $30 a month.

Meffert’s guilty plea in a kickback scheme involving his office made the prospects of working with the city somewhat toxic, Settles said, because of Meffert’s involvement with the original network.

“It didn’t help that Mr. Meffert happened to find himself with some legal issues,” Settles said. “Nobody wants to be attached to the wireless network now because of the stigma there.”

••

Statewide, prospects for wider broadband access have stumbled, too. In November, Jindal refused an $80 million federal grant aimed at spreading broadband to poor, rural areas of the state.

Jindal released a statement to The Times-Picayune newspaper saying the grant “called for a heavy-handed approach from the federal government that would have undermined and taken over private business.

“We have an administration in Washington that wants to run car companies, banks, our entire health care system, and now they want to take over the broadband business,” Jindal wrote. “We won’t stand for that in Louisiana.”

At the time, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell accused Jindal of killing the state’s broadband plan as a favor to private broadband interests, which had supported his campaign.

“This was a terrible mistake they made, not getting that grant,” Campbell told The Lens in a phone interview. “People who gave Jindal large amounts of money objected to the project, and I thought there was a hell of a conflict. Jindal talks about education reform, but how are they going to get education reform in those rural parishes if they can’t get access to high speed Internet?”

Jindal did not respond to requests for comment from The Lens.

James Davis, with Network USA, one of the private companies Campbell singled out as benefiting from the loss of the grant, refuted the idea that Jindal’s position had favored his company.

“Foster Campbell’s comments were his own opinion, and I don’t agree with him,” Davis said. “I’d like to see how we benefited from the loss of the grant.”

Philip Meyers, executive vice president of GEC, a Baton Rouge-based consulting company charged with installing the proposed rural broadband system, said the federal government withdrew the money because the state wanted to farm out the broadband deal to private companies. He said was ready to deliver a state-owned system but was shut out.

“I had a plan to perform, and they pulled the plug on me,” Meyers said.

••

Across the country, Levy of Freepress.net has encountered countless examples of private broadband providers muscling out efforts by government to provide the public with free access. In 2011, for example, North Carolina legislators voted for a “level playing field” law, which effectively prohibited local governments from building their own broadband networks to compete with private industry.

Democratic state representative, Bill Faison said Time Warner Cable and other major network providers pushed the law through, in response to efforts by the town of Wilson, N.C., to install its own high-speed municipal network.

“This was the Time Warner Cable Limited monopoly bill,” Faison said, in a telephone interview with The Lens. “They limited the ability for any municipality to provide these services to their citizens.”

While municipalities can provide broadband to customers in rural areas for as few as three to six customers per mile, major companies like Time Warner Cable are only interested in installing networks where they can guarantee 167 customers a mile, Faison said.

“So the big boys’ solution to the problem was to force the municipalities out,” Faison said. “They brought down a dozen lobbyists and went after the legislators really, really hard. It was a bad thing, I think, for the people ultimately, of this state.”

Justin Venech, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, said the bill was about creating a level playing field for governments and cable companies competing in the broadband arena, and that it didn’t necessarily prohibit municipalities from entering the marketplace.

Similar laws are being considered in Minnesota, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, Levy said.

“We’re seeing, basically, the same bill popping up all over the place,” Levy said. “And there’s no excuse for it other than the fact that big monopolies don’t want competition from the public sector.”

••

Against a bleak background in Louisiana, Lafayette stands out for having pioneered a municipal broadband network of its own.

Mayor Joey Durel convinced voters in 2006 to adopt a plan to build the network for $150 million, and it is now listed amongst the fastest in the United States.

Lafayette used infrastructure owned by the city’s municipal-owned electricity company, founded in 1896, to create the network.

Durel said he faced considerable opposition from private telecommunications companies to the initiative. One voter even sued the city, hoping to overturn the city’s right to sell bonds to finance the work, but the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against her.

The system isn’t free, but its subscriptions are cheaper than the competing network from Cox Communications, according to a recent story in USA Today. And the service is faster, too.

Durel said the network is likely to start making money in one or two years, and that it has helped the city to compete for jobs.

“If we want the good, high-paying jobs to come to Louisiana,” Durel said, “we’ve got to have good business reasons to do that, rather than just our crawfish and our festivals.”

 

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • David Eber

    Thanks to the Lens for the love, however, I don’t run the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. I run our communications.

    Sincerely,

    David Eber

  • M. Toups

    This is a really good article, it ties together the various aspects of the story well (need for broadband, economic/racial disparity, local blunders, state government obstruction, national trends). Thanks Matt Davis. More articles with information like this ought to run in the Times-Picayune, CityBusiness, Louisiana Weekly, etc.

    Also I don’t think we ever hear about the Lafayette municipal broadband effort, even in nearby cities like New Orleans. That is an important, under-reported story.

    I did find a good article about all of the effort Cox and Bellsouth/AT&T expended trying to stop Lafayette’s fiber network while refusing to invest in services there themselves:

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/05/lousiana-fiber-network-running-despite-cable-telco-lawsuits.ars

    The freepress.net folks have been advocating for equal access to networks for many years now, they deserve much credit.

    Please keep following this issue and the local impact of these actions by our state government and the local telco monopolies.

  • Gabriel Pinto

    Great article. However, is there any way you can publish the technical numbers for the speed of the public networks in New Orleans and Lafayette? Instead of simply saying “the service is faster”, the reader would be in a better position having that technical information available (for the technically inclined).

  • Nancy Chachere

    Consider a map of all households that have cable, sattellite or similar television service. You will find that virtually all households have that, even those in the lowest economic brackets. Broadband can usually be obtained through those services. Sure it costs more to have entertainment and broadband, but we all make choices. Just sayin’

  • Foley

    Wonderful article! Shame what the teleco companies are doing.

  • alright

    “Meanwhile poorer, more African American areas such as the Lower 9th Ward have broadband subscription rates of between 0 and 40 percent.”

    Ok, so let’s say you even gave them FREE INTERNET and even a FREE COMPUTER, would they even know who to use it.

    BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, “HOW MANY WANT TO USE IT in the FIRST PLACE?” (besides selling it, or stealing someone else’s free computer to sell)

    This article cites one black guy, who’s 20 years old filing out job applications. That’s good. However, look how few there are now in the 9th ward who are surviving without Internet or computers.

    Can you even interest them? Or even have a simple conversation with these low income black people who already distrust whites and are like EBT and food stamp recipients and have no desire or financial motivation to learn anything new.

  • alright

    From the map, as you move it from 2008 to 2010, it seems like the poor areas, e.g. 9th ward, are moving from red and pink to becoming more yellow and white color.

    And according to the legend, that means these poor areas, 9th ward and on, have less and less access to the Internet. Just the exact OPPOSITE of what you think in a supposedly returning population to the New Orleans metro area.

  • http://blog.lafayetteprofiber.com/ Johnastj

    Great article. Thanks for pulling all this together. As someone pulling for municipal broadband in Lafayette I’ve watched the New Orelan’s experience with a series of emotions as the hopes for our sister city’s broadband and risen and fallen.

    A couple of comments:
    1) The story cites Craig Settles on the failed wireless project in New Orleans. Settles is certainly right that the New Orleans project was one of many “public-private partnerships” of the era that failed due to lousy business plans. It’s worth noting that it was almost always the private side that failed to find a way to profit adequately off resources whose costs were substantially mitigated by public investment. Since the capital resources were largely paid for New Orleanians might be lead to wonder why the city didn’t pick up the ball and the story strongly suggest such a critique. The truth is that Louisiana has a lousy law largely passed to try and damage the Lafayette project mentioned in the story and prevent any new municipally operated competitors from arising. That law prohibits any municipality from starting up such a service at a usable speed—or even offering already public owned resources to a private competitor at lease—without engaging in a referendum that invites the sort of battle with the incumbents that Lafayette endured; it also puts huge fiscal constraints on a new network that gets built—regardless of the barriers to even beginning—in ways calculated to drive the new utility into failure.

    I’m afraid the current New Orleans administration didn’t have much choice about all this when they came into control. The damage was already done.

    I’ve tried to understand all this before.
    A requiem: http://blog.lafayetteprofiber.com/2008/04/new-orleans-wi-fi-gone.html
    A bit written at a crucial turning point: http://blog.lafayetteprofiber.com/2006/05/bs-and-cox-stand-in-way-of-earthlink.html
    There’s a bunch more at that same site if anyone wants to wade through a history of snapshots taken as the events evolved.

    2) Gabriel Pinto asks about speeds in Lafayette. LUS Fiber’s pricing/speed tiers page for residents, —Speeds from 10 to 100 Mbps symmetrical: http://www.lusfiber.com/index.php/internet/pricing-guide
    (You can get a gig if you really want, you just have to pay for it on the commercial page.)
    Getting Cox’s speed for New Orleans should be easy. (I don’t think AT&T is a serious competitor any longer)

  • Kim Spencer

    Thank you thank you thank you for re-publishing. I’ve wondered if the data were available. They point out the folly in using a one-size-fits-all policy when making corporate decisions. Either the deciders don’t know the community or – more likely – they simply don’t care.

  • Pingback: Newspaper’s Plans Reveal Digital Divide |

  • Pingback: Newspaper’s Plans Reveal Digital Divide

  • http://www.census.gov Vicki Mack

    This was an interesting article that mentioned the use of Census Data. Readers should know that the demographics for the article were obtained from the American Community Survey, which is an ongoing statistical survey that samples a small percentage of the population every year –giving communities the current information they need to plan investments and services. More information about this survey can be obtained at http://www.census.gov/acs/www/. Also, Please see what the Census Director has to say about recent congressional vote on the Census budget and the detrimental impact on this important survey at http://directorsblog.blogs.census.gov/2012/05/11/a-future-without-key-social-and-economic-statistics-for-the-country/.

  • https://www.facebook.com/wilpnobles Wilborn Nobles

    I’m bombarded by our city official’s history of negligence, as well as the majority of people who assume that the youths here only want to cause trouble. Admittedly, they are a lot of bad apples in this city, if not this state, but has anyone ever stopped to ask why and try to solve the problem as opposed to only blaming the kids and abandoning them? Many of these kids are following in the footsteps of generations of bad guidance and negative images of the black community portrayed in mass media. It’s hard to say that you wouldn’t do the same if you were put in that position because many of you never have and never will be in that position.

    I grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, and now I’m a journalism student at LSU learning just now about the dark past of my city. We have a long way to go before we can be at the same level as other southern states. And the officials here choose to act ignorant about the conditions, or they have failed to seek assistance outside of the state to help their people, at least. Thank you for the article, and I hope the world continues to expose our backward communities until enough people can say enough is enough.

  • Pingback: New Orleans Residents Out to Kill NOLA.com—Boycott Launched Of Site Modeled on AnnArbor.com | A2Politico

  • Genevieve B

    I’m wondering if it’s just areas like mine, with only 20-405% high speed internet subscribers, that are paying for high speed internet and don’t receive it.

    I’m with Cox and I found out the basic high speed internet package wasn’t fast enough to do much of anything and was especially insufficient for streaming youtube or god forbid you use Netflix.

    A couple of weeks after signing up my service, only to find that out, I upgraded my service subscription and tripled my monthly internet bill.

    NOW, I am registering the same internet speeds of 0.1mpbs to 1.0 or 2.0mpbs the majority of the time with a rare and occasional brief spike in the connection speed just enough for my PCs to function faster than dialup or for my Sony media streamer to even acknowledge there is service at all to be able to view the media menus for any of the services (Netflix, youtube, Hulu).

    Is it just dumb luck that my block’s got bad main cables or is it that they don’t care about our areas with a low percentage of internet subscribers and knowingly give us services that are almost never anywhere near those detailed in our package and usually no different from the speeds experienced in their slowest package (which, even then is usually still slower than it is supposed to be)?

    Crampy luck or inconsiderate unethical greed motivated intent?

    I wish U-Verse were available here. I never had any of these issues when I had U-Verse.

  • Cassandra

    I think we’ve reached the moment where the internet should be considered an essential service. Banking, employment services (job applications and unemployment filing), finding apartments, filing tax returns, health services information–all on the internet. Many companies charge if you book a service on the phone nowadays. I’m not “poor”–I make just enough to cover my basic bills, but the Cox fee for basic monthly internet is currently $56.61 and goes up slightly each month. That’s very expensive. I moved here from New York City (the most expensive city in the country, right?) and basic internet there was about $36.00 a month. I think Cox gets away with murder on their charges. By the way, no, I do not have cable or other services with Cox. I use Virgin for my mobile service at $35 a month. People who say all these people who don’t have internet do have cable and pay for other ‘fancy’ services–I think you are assuming things about people you don’t know. I hope everyone will consider that $56 a month for hard-working people who can barely pay their bills already.