Deep divides in internet infrastructure across South Carolina persist, but with new data and a refreshed call to action brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, improvements seem more likely than ever.
Research commissioned by state health organizations show for the first time where residents can't buy a reliable internet plan. The analysis found 193,000 households, or nearly one in 10 in South Carolina, don't have a good connection.
The communities are spread out across rural areas where companies that own the cables making up the internet's grid have not expanded into or where existing lines haven't been upgraded in years.
The data point a spotlight at the areas of the state that badly need new internet infrastructure. The solution is, literally, crystal clear: fiber, bundles of glass strands laid across the country that bring lightning-fast speeds. But given the steep upfront cost of installing it, internet companies have been slow to bring the technology to places where fewer potential customers live.
Marlboro County, on the border with North Carolina near Interstate 95, is the worst-off in the state, with 95 percent of the population lacking a connection that meets federal standards.
Even the county seat in Bennettsville has only spotty connections downtown, the new maps show. Businesses can't move to town without an internet plan.
Ron Munnerlyn, Marlboro County administrator, already knew all that. The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for the area, he said. Children are often doing homework from the library parking lot, and parents are unable to work from home.
"The internet isn't a luxury," he said. "It's like water or electric. And we don't have it."
The county's lack of internet was a problem long before COVID-19, he said. Though he is an advocate for small government, he said the county won't be able to improve broadband without some form of public aid.
Some parts of every county lack internet, said Jim Stritzinger, a seasoned South Carolina broadband expert. The S.C. Hospital Association, the S.C. Office of Rural Health and Palmetto Care Connections recently hired his company, Columbia-based Revolution D, to complete the research. He blended data from the Federal Communications Commission and Speedtest.net.
Part of his goal was to show how old-fashioned copper cables, which are still the best technology in many places, have lost their usefulness.
Those copper lines fueled the switch from dial-up to DSL, when customers could start using the telephone and internet at the same time. But they depreciate over the years, Stritzinger said, and the service deteriorates the farther they extend out.
"We’re dealing with 40-year-old infrastructure that’s been in the ground and never been touched," Stritzinger said.
Some providers have begun adding fiber to copper networks and speeds have improved as a result, Stritzinger said. But "fiber is future-proof," he said.
He hopes the detailed maps will help guide government dollars to places most in need of help.
Federal aid is already on the way, though none has yet been directed to Marlboro County.
A round of grants was announced late last year, including an $8.2 million commitment to help Berkeley County-based Home Telecom expand its network into the Francis Marion National Forest.
Just a few miles up the road from Mount Pleasant, Stefani Timmerman struggles with her home's internet connection inside the forest. The Charleston County art teacher and musician often uses a Verizon hotspot for herself, with her school-age daughter also at home doing distance learning. That can mean wandering around the yard with her laptop hoisted above her head, searching for a connection.
Timmerman, one half of the bluegrass and country Tar & Feather Duo, has struggled to share her music with her followers online given her poor connection. It can take her 45 minutes to download a single song. Normally, she would be playing gigs around this time of year.
Teaching has been even harder, however. Instructing students remotely is difficult, especially for a subject like art. During video calls, Timmerman can't always see her students clearly. Her plans to retire this year have turned bittersweet.
She said her provider, TDS Telecom, has promised to bring higher broadband speeds this year. Just recently, Timmerman said crews were digging in front of her property.
Jefferson-based Sandhill Telephone Cooperative plans to replace all of its lines with fiber in the next five years, CEO Lee Chambers said. The co-op serves Chesterfield County, adjacent to Marlboro. Each mile of fiber it installs along a rural highway costs between $25,000 and $30,000, Chambers said. Right now, 70 percent of its infrastructure is copper.
The cost of the specialized labor is high, as all providers are also pushing fiber into their networks. And with Chesterfield County's population at only 46,000, Sandhill's service area has a limited number of potential customers, and not all will choose to buy faster speeds.
"Just because you build it doesn't mean people will come," Chambers said.
Molly Spearman, South Carolina's superintendent of education, said on May 6 that 150,000 households in the state are home to students without internet access, making distance learning for them all the more challenging. Spearman said some of the state's allotment of federal aid could be directed toward improving internet access for students who lack it.
"There is a strong sentiment in the state by leaders to get it done, using different pots of money," Spearman said. Developing a statewide broadband plan will be the first priority.
U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn also pushed last week for bipartisan support for a nationwide broadband expansion plan. In a recent weekly address, Clyburn, D-S.C., said the novel coronavirus pandemic has "laid bare the digital divide."
Though rural counties are hardest-hit, pockets of more populous regions lack access, too. In Beaufort County, Esther Shaver-Harnett began the Connected for Success fund to supply Wi-Fi hotspots to students in need at the beginning of the year. So far, she has been able to send 125 of the hotspots to students in the county. Demand for the devices has only grown during the pandemic.
"To me, it’s an absolute necessity for kids to have internet. This pandemic proves it," she said. "You can’t get anywhere without it.”
Kathy Schwarting is CEO of Palmetto Care Connections, which helps health care organizations connect patients to telehealth and advocates for better internet. The new research opens an important window showing the parts of the state that need better internet the most.
"These maps will help us prioritize where our efforts need to go," she said.
Soon, even newer maps will be out using data that companies have agreed to hand over voluntarily.
The pandemic has put a spotlight on those issues in Marlboro, according to Munnerlyn, the county administrator. And he said there is no time like a crisis to find the momentum to fix it.