On May 25th, ULI Louisiana hosted an event: Addressing the Digital Divide: A ULI Louisiana Symposium on Broadband and 5G Access. This symposium was designed as a precursor to the ULI Louisiana Technical Assistance Panel on the Plank Road. The Plank Road corridor will soon receive a new Bus Rapid Transit line, and economic development strategies that leverage the new line and community anchor institutions are being actively examined. During conversations with the community, one of the main requests was to examine how free or lower cost internet and/or 5G access could be provided. As ULI Louisiana began planning for a later Technical Assistance Panel on the broader Plank Road Corridor, a concern arose that broadband and 5G internet infrastructure is an area with which the Real Estate and Land Use industry is not familiar or technically versed.
The goal with this event was to bring together both national and local experts in broadband with members of the local real estate industry, community leaders, and other stakeholders to both establish a baseline level understanding of some of the technical challenges in expanding this infrastructure, and to then discuss the tools and partnerships needed to improve digital access and affordability beyond just a theoretical sense.
The event had a variety of extremely qualified speakers, including in the first panel: Veneeth Iyengar, Executive Director for Broadband Development & Connectivity with the State of Louisiana; Teles Fremin, Acting General Manager of LUS Fiber, a local municipally owned internet service provider; and Jeff Reiman, President of The Broadband Group. This first panel took a high-level look at the state of broadband deployment an access in Baton Rouge and the rest of Louisiana, and discussed many of the technical challenges, areas of opportunity, and economic difficulties when it comes to expanding broadband access or making it more affordable. The second panel, consisted of Chuck Kirby, Vice President, Smart Communities; Virginia Center for Innovative Technology; Debra Lam, Founding Executive Director at the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation; Molly McKay, Principal at Willdan Financial & Economic Consulting Services; and was moderated by Brian Andrews, Executive Director of the Real Estate Research Institute at LSU. This panel took the next step, building on the work of the first panel and the first breakout session, focusing on specific examples of economic development case studies that leveraged broadband expansion projects to enable workforce development, education programs, and emergency management systems. Following this panel, the groups broke into small groups to discuss first defining digital equity, based on modifying a given definition, and secondly the goals, tools, principles, and changes needed to begin working towards that goal. These conversations were then also reported out for the larger group to discuss.
There were some unexpected takeaways from this group, and it was a strong event that imparted significant new knowledge and perspective to the attendees. A full summary of the event and takeaways will be published in the coming weeks via UrbanLand.