The pressure continues to build for South Carolina to expand internet access to all of its residents as the pandemic has shown how vital this tool is for education, health care and other basic services. Officials in every layer of government and the private sector have important roles to play.
Unfortunately, about a quarter of all rural homes in South Carolina, or about 10% of the state’s population, lack acceptable internet speeds to get service at a rate that the Federal Communications Commission considers minimally acceptable. More than 30,000 South Carolina students had their education seriously interrupted this spring because they had no digital access after the pandemic closed down their schools.
The good news is that the state is getting detailed maps that zero in on specific areas that are unserved or underserved, and this information will help empower the many people who have a role to play in expanding service.
Entrepreneur Jim Stritzinger began mapping internet access in South Carolina in cooperation with the S.C. Hospital Association, the Office of Rural Health and Palmetto Care Connections. That detailed work, which he is continuing, promises to create a blueprint for utilities and policymakers. It’s a complicated picture, as seen in the example of Richland County. It’s one of the state’s most populous and urban counties and has many neighborhoods served by fiber optic cable, the best internet service available. But residents in at least a dozen other corners of the county have no access at all.
“We can’t wait 10 years to solve this problem,” Mr. Stritzinger says. “To go into high school and not be a digital native is really a permanent disability. It’s tough to think of a job that’s not impacted by technology.”
It’s encouraging that U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and other Democrats unveiled a plan recently to connect all Americans to affordable broadband internet. If there is another coronavirus response package, it should include a significant sum to help bring that about. Even before COVID-19, federal grants, either from the FCC or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were key to expanding internet access in rural areas. South Carolina recently secured three such USDA grants for parts of Kershaw, Orangeburg, Berkeley and Charleston counties.
Government needs to act because the economics of extending service don’t pencil out for private companies. South Carolina lawmakers are considering several steps that could help, but the problem also should be tackled by local government and utility officials who seize on opportunities to lay relatively inexpensive conduit in rural areas where they already are digging a trench for water lines and the like.
Mr. Stritzinger says the solution “is not this or that. The key word is and. When you have a big problem like this, you need to do this and this and this, all at the same time. ... We have to do 100 projects at the same time to achieve this mission.”
South Carolina is doing a lot to focus on helping business in the near term of this COVID-19 outbreak. Extending internet service is a critical investment to ensure all parts of the state are poised for better business, health and education in the decades to come.