VILLE PLATTE — U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, was greeted by two dozen cheerleaders and a drum section Monday morning at the doors to Ville Platte High School. The party was just starting.
Inside, more than 200 members of the junior and senior classes met the senator’s entry to the auditorium with an enthusiastic roar. There, the senator told students that Ville Platte High would be among those to share in the benefits of a $29.9 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that would connect most Evangeline Parish residents to broadband internet.
That was good news to Leslie Foreman, a graduating senior and Student of the Year at Ville Platte. He said reliable internet was “huge” news for those living in the town of about 7,000 residents and in the rural hinterlands beyond the city limits.
During the onset of the pandemic, he said, when schools were closed and instruction was delivered remotely, unreliable internet imperiled learning opportunities for many students.
“A lot of people were competing for internet in my house,” said Foreman, who plans to attend LSU-Eunice and play baseball. “I was always afraid of missing something online.”
Foreman had reason for worry. Local leaders including Mayor Jennifer Vidrine said internet service in her town is among the slowest in America. The goal, she said, was to go “from worst to first” through the benefits of the NTIA grant.
“This is one of the greatest days in Evangeline Parish history,” Cassidy told his audience. “From this point forward the potential for each one of you will be better able to be realized.”
Cassidy said his involvement in the effort began a year ago and grew. Better internet service will help not only students but also businesses seeking to compete for and serve customers.
Cassidy’s office said the grant will expand broadband service to 22,590 households, 3,723 businesses, 19 schools and four hospitals in Evangeline, Acadia and St. Landry Parishes. It will provide speeds up to 1 gigabyte per second, with an option of 100 megabytes for $60 month or less.
Darwan Lazard, Evangeline school superintendent, said on-campus internet is “great” in Evangeline — it’s the school-to-home internet that lags. He said a “substantial number of students” were unable to access the internet during COVID-19 school shutdowns and said that adding fiber would be “vitally important.”
Vidrine touted Cassidy’s dedication to improving life in rural Louisiana. She said she has visited with him often and not only found him receptive to new ideas, but also eager to research new ways of his own to help rural communities.
Cassidy said when he started promoting federal funding for better internet services, “I was thinking of places like this.”
He said improvements like this have followed bipartisan efforts, adding political leaders must “build on common ground to find solutions.”
Both Vidrine and Lazard said Cassidy was the first U.S. senator to visit Ville Platte High.