ConnectLA, Louisiana’s broadband agency led by director Venneth Iyengar and Thomas Tyler, has been tasked with enormous responsibility: ensuring that every household in Louisiana has access to affordable, quality Internet by 2029.
“We’re effectively a public startup with an office of three core people and a bunch of student interns solving a problem for 1.7 million folks,” Iyengar said. “We have the skillset of working across the sector of policy, technology and economic development in an entrepreneurial environment to build that program.”
This provides a unique opportunity to rewrite the script on Louisiana which has often ranked among the worst states for broadband connectivity with nearly 2 million households lacking access to quality, affordable Internet at the onset of the pandemic.
Veneeth’s first introduction to Louisiana’s struggles with broadband adoption came while leading economic development efforts for the City of Baton Rouge. Searching for clues to the economic development successes of similar-sized cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee and Raleigh, North Carolina led him to recognize that these cities had higher broadband penetration rates than Baton Rouge.
Veneeth and Mayor Sharon Weston Broome soon began brainstorming how to boost broadband penetration in the city as legislative efforts were underway to establish a state broadband office. These efforts later culminated in legislation establishing Connect Louisiana being signed into law in 2020 and Governor John Bel Edwards hiring Iyengar in early 2021.
For the past two years, Veneeth and Thomas have been on a seemingly never-ending road trip across Louisiana’s 64 parishes and more than 100 cities and towns engaging stakeholders on the next steps to closing the state’s digital divide.
These meetings have helped the pair gain understanding and trust from stakeholders while also dropping the number of unserved locations without federal obligation from 100% to 45%.
Venneth and Thomas, joined by myself and Ben Kahn, Ready’s Digital Community Lead, or “Broadband Bros” as we’ve begun to call ourselves, demonstrated Ready’s Challenge Process Coordinator to municipalities, internet service providers and community leaders in five locations across the state. It’s this tool that enables Veneeth to run an office of three employees (including himself) and a gaggle of student interns, and still scale their workload.
After demonstrating the challenge process across the state with Venneth and Thomas, Ben and I went on a road trip of our own in Louisiana, where I spent some of my elementary and middle school years.
We spoke with stakeholders from across the state; from Thibodaux down in Lafourche Parish, all the way up to Natchitoches and over to Monroe – we criss-crossed the Bayou State over the course of three days, speaking to leaders about the work they were doing to get their communities connect to broadband.
Invariably, the folks we spoke to were quick to point out the ways in which the ConnectLA team had assisted them in their efforts. Josh Etheridge, owner of Etheridge Pipeline and Conduit, described a relationship of assistance, whereby Josh can reach out to Veneeth with any concerns he has, and Veneeth can reach out to him for his perspective and expertise, “I know he’s tired of hearing from me,” Josh joked, “But he he also leans into what I'm saying too,” he added.
Ben and I hope to tell Veneeth and Thomas’ story of advocacy and success through a series of vignettes from around Louisiana. Keep your eyes peeled over the coming weeks as we bring you content from every corner of the Bayou State.
Leonard and Ben