Higher Internet fees would be costly toll on the S.C. economy

Workers install overhead fiber-optic wires. File/AP

Despite its fast-growing hub of technology companies, a new analysis finds that residents of Charleston have less access to the high-quality, high-speed fiber Internet service than other places in South Carolina. 

The report from the for-profit BroadbandNow shows 9.4 percent of Charleston County residents have access to the speedy technology. Meanwhile, 17.9 percent of South Carolinians can buy fiber Internet if they wish, and 27.1 percent of all Americans can.

Fiber is one of several types of technologies that deliver Internet. Others kinds of connections include DSL, wireless and cable modem. The draw of fiber comes with the potential speed it offers — tens or hundreds of times that of other offerings. The national rate is higher because internet companies tend to put fiber in more densely populated areas, where more people might buy it.

High-speed service isn't necessary for most everyday online tasks, and its availability is likely not South Carolina's priority in improving Internet access for businesses and residents. But it is often billed as the broadband technology of the future.

"Fiber does open up some great possibilities," said Ana de Castro, a spokeswoman for BroadbandNow. "It does seem to be the fastest and the most reliable."

The widely publicized Google Fiber service is not yet available anywhere in South Carolina. But a few other providers offer their own versions in the Charleston market, including Home Telecom, Comcast and AT&T for individuals and WOW! Business and Windstream Business for commercial customers. 

BroadbandNow lists seven providers offering fiber connections to Charleston's business community. 

The lag for Charleston might not be too surprising given how expensive laying the lines can be. The Department of Transportation estimates it costs $27,000 per mile, on average.

And in downtown Charleston, installers have to contend with a tangle of existing wires under the ground. That infrastructure of more outdated cables hampers possible upgrades, raising concerns among economic development groups.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce has said the latest and greatest fiber is "necessary to drive economic development along Charleston’s fast growing high-tech business corridor."

Home Telecom has been using fiber since 2004, according to GigUp Charleston. It also holds the advantage of having access to an infrastructure of fiber that trails downtown Charleston, built originally by SCANA Corp. when the former SCE&G parent harbored dreams of becoming a telecommunications provider. 

AT&T launched its fiber network in Charleston in 2016. A spokeswoman said they offer fiber to 50,000 addresses, and plans to continue building the network are underway. The company invested nearly $750 million into its South Carolina networks from 2015 to 2017.

Still, other places in South Carolina have more access to fiber than Charleston, including Richland County and Greenville. In the Midlands town of Lexington, for instance, 60 percent of residents can buy fiber, according to BroadbandNow.

BroadbandNow's report comes from data from the Federal Communications Commission, which releases information about Internet down to the census block — and there are 182,000 of them in South Carolina.

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Some of the FCC's estimations about internet coverage may be an overestimate. Still, Jim Stritzinger, a broadband expert who has worked for years to improve access across the state, and is now a technology consultant, said the FCC's data is an important road map. 

To him, the most pressing issue is still the 537,000 South Carolina residents who lack Internet service all together. In some parts of the state, fiber might be wishful thinking. The so-called digital divide is far less prevalent in Charleston, where 97 percent of city residents can buy Internet service from at least one provider.

"The disadvantage falls on rural communities right now," Stritzinger said. "That’s where we need to do the work."

Another problem for rural areas comes in higher prices: BroadbandNow estimates internet costs about 30 percent more in low-competition areas compared to places where there are lots of options. And the same money spent in a city might buy slower internet in a rural area.

The excitement around fiber comes from the fact that the technology is "future-proof," Stritzinger said. Because it is made of glass fibers, speeds are unlimited, he said. So as other electronics upgrade, the speed being delivered to homes and businesses will improve as well. 

"That’s why there’s such a push," he said.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.