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Editorial: As we keep our distance, SC internet access becomes more vital than ever

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St. George cell site (copy)

In 2017, AT&T fitted a cell tower in St. George with new antennas to provide home and business internet service in rural Dorchester County. Many other rural areas still ack it. File/Thad Moore/Staff

Before last month, our national debate over broadband internet access in rural areas might have begun with the question: Do farmers really have to have Netflix? As we adjust to a new reality remade by the COVID-19 outbreak, a more appropriate question might be: Isn't broadband now as essential as electricity?

As we stay at home as much as possible, good internet access has become exponentially more vital to interacting with doctors, doing our jobs, continuing our children's education, seeking government services and more. 

As a headline in The New York Times recently put it, "Coronavirus has ended the screen-time debate and the screens have won."

The problem is, our access to content on these screens is far from equal. One in 4 rural South Carolina homes and businesses lacks acceptable internet speeds — and what the Federal Communications Commission considers minimally acceptable still is five times slower than the cheapest service offered in many cities.

Of course, this problem of broadband internet access in rural areas predated the pandemic by years, and some progress has been made. But the closure of all public libraries — where many rural and low-income residents have turned for internet access they lack at home — has likely more than offset any recent gains. Some school districts have been creative in using Wi-Fi equipped buses to fill the gap temporarily, but South Carolina residents need a viable long-term solution. 

Earlier this year, Home Telecom won an $8.1 million Rural Development Broadband ReConnect grant to lay hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable in rural areas around Charleston, including Honey Hill, Huger, Awendaw, McClellanville, Cross and Sandridge.

And Gov. Henry McMaster has taken a positive step in urging legislators to spend $575,000 on converting unused public TV towers for internet use. As The Post and Courier's Adam Benson reports, Mr. McMaster called broadband connectivity "no longer a luxury — it is a necessity, critical to ensuring a level playing field for those in rural areas."

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Mr. McMaster's welcome move builds upon SCETV's existing broadband partnership with Sprint that focuses especially on underserved communities and their early child care and education sites. More than 260 hot spot locations already have been created and more are targeted this year.

"We recognize that we have a robust infrastructure in place that serves our unique needs throughout the state and could also benefit others in helping to make increased broadband coverage a reality," SCETV spokesman Jeremy Cauthen tells us.  "The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic showcases the importance of this initiative on multiple fronts."

As the COVID-19 crisis eases and allows state lawmakers to return to other state business, they should consider doing even more, including passing a bill to let the Rural Infrastructure Authority also provide grants to extend high-speed internet to poorer, rural areas. The bill already has passed the House.

The Senate also is considering a proposed "Broadband Accessibility Act" to urge South Carolina's electric cooperatives to add high-speed internet service by partnering with private businesses. Sen. John Scott told Mr. Benson the advantage of this approach is the co-ops already have transmission lines and relationships with rural customers.

We'll let lawmakers sort out the best approach to help, but it's clear the state and federal governments must do more to meet an important need the private sector has not found it profitable to serve. After all, these same governments already have moved an increasing amount of the public's business online — a reality that stands out dramatically in our current time of social distancing.

No one's education should be curbed — and no one should have a harder time talking with a doctor — because there's not a school bus parked close to their home.

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