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Broadband expansion in Richland County part of statewide connectivity push

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A tower that was formerly used by SCETV to broadcast educational programming now sits idle as its microwave technology is no longer used. A project called AI Broadband is looking at repurposing the towers to provide internet to rural areas. File/Provided

A broadband expansion project by a Midlands power company into outlying areas of a built-out South Carolina county is being held up as an example of the digital disparities present even in parts of the state considered urban.

Tri-County Electric Cooperative, a St. Matthews energy provider for six counties, is planning to run high-speed internet lines into rural pockets of Richland County within several months as part of a systemwide upgrade taking shape over the next few years, utility officials said on May 27.

Details of the plan were made public just as the state’s coronavirus recovery panel proposed that Gov. Henry McMaster set aside $90.2 million of South Carolina’s $1.9 billion federal coronavirus aid to finance the expansion of broadband statewide.

A quarter of homes and businesses in rural South Carolina lack Internet speeds that the Federal Communications Commission considers even minimally acceptable. And that speed is still five times slower than the lowest-price service offered to customers in the Columbia area.

“It’s a shame broadband is not available to all of South Carolina. It’s a true travesty,” former state Sen. Greg Ryberg, who leads the panel, told a Senate subcommittee on May 27. “Our goal is we can hopefully help in starting the removal of that deficit to rural parts of South Carolina.”

Expect Tri-County, which has 18,076 electric meters across 2,740 miles of distribution lines in six counties, to compete for a share of that cash.

CEO Chad Lowder says Tri-County needs roughly $50 million to build out its fiber optic network, and is hopeful the cooperative can secure up to $15 million through a Federal Communications Commission grant. If that happens, the first test customers could be online by October. Any additional funding allocated by the state would hasten the timeline.

“Any additional revenue or sources of funding, that just expedites our process in the construction phase of it,” Lowder says.

Tri-County will overlay fiber optic lines along existing poles, and a subsidiary is being set up as an operating entity for the cooperative’s internet arm, answering directly to its governing board.

“We recognize these areas are underserved by the broadband providers that are out there. The reason they’re underserved is because of density,” Lowder says.

It’s the first large-scale upgrade to the state’s internet backbone announced since the arrival of a coronavirus pandemic that has forced thousands of students indoors with virtual learning plans dependent on web access — bandwidth in many cases shared by homebound working parents.

“This crisis that we are in has accentuated the need that we make certain this is available in every community in South Carolina,” state Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins, said in a Zoom news conference. Her community will be among those to benefit from Tri-County’s project.

The recent recommendation, which was made at the final meeting of the task force advising McMaster on how to safely reopen the economy, includes spending $250,000 to create a statewide map “to know where the holes and needs are for broadband,” said Ryberg, an Aiken Republican.

It also calls for spending $10 million to create broadband hot spots across the state. The rest would be allocated for broadband infrastructure as determined by the study and legislators. While it’s unknown exactly how much will be needed, “we wanted to make the commitment and then we’ll turn the issue to the General Assembly.” Under the federal CARES Act, the money must be spent by Dec. 30.

Tri-County’s board voted in February to move forward with its fiber optic vision, and the past few weeks have only emphasized why the investment is so critical, officials said.

“I think for once, in the state, that this has gotten the attention for everybody,” Brawley said. “Our goal is combine federal dollars with the state dollars to unleash this program quickly.”

State education officials estimate 150,000 student households lack broadband access, while 160,000 students can’t get to a computing device. Last month, a McMaster-appointed task force suggested placing a “high priority” on using COVID-19 recovery funds to plug that gap ahead of the 2020-21 academic year.

Of the state’s 81 school districts, 19 are completely online and 45 are using a mix of virtual and paper instruction, depending on the home and community access to high-speed internet. But in 17 districts, teaching continues entirely through packets either picked up at the school or taken to students’ homes, according to the state Education Department.

“We’ve got places less than 10 miles from here where folks don’t have broadband,” state Superintendent Molly Spearman said on April 27, during the first coronavirus recovery task force meeting. “It’s not just Allendale. It’s all over. I need your help. This is out of my realm, if we’re going to be able to offer e-leaning to all students, but also telehealth and tele-mental health.”

House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, of York, says the problem is much more complex than people realize, as it’s not just a rural-urban issue.

Even in his district, teachers have called him about the lack of broadband at their home: “Have we figured out mechanically what (providing broadband statewide) really entails? I have a teacher where it’s available at the front of the street but it’s not financially feasible (for the provider) to extend to the end of the street,” Pope said.

Spearman agreed, noting she received a similar call from a teacher in Spartanburg County. “A teacher teaching AP calculus and had to go to her church to get internet. It was a situation where broadband was 900 feet from her home.”

Spearman’s department has tried to solve that problem by deploying 400 Wi-Fi-equipped school buses to regions of the state where internet is lacking, creating traveling hot spots that students can use to complete course work.

Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

Benson joined The Post and Courier's Columbia bureau in November 2019. A native of Boston, he spent three years at the Greenwood Index-Journal and has won multiple South Carolina Press Association awards for his reporting.

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