COLUMBIA — Recognizing that shoddy internet services in South Carolina's rural areas are hurting efforts to attract jobs, fill healthcare gaps and educate students in the 21st century, lawmakers are looking for ways to make reliable, high speeds available statewide.
"Broadband connectivity is a powerful catalyst for economic and social advancement. It is no longer a luxury — it is a necessity, critical to ensuring a level playing field for those in rural areas. Emergency response, health care access, education — all rely increasingly on Internet access," Gov. Henry McMaster said in recommending that legislators spend $575,000 on converting unused public TV towers.
A quarter of homes and businesses in rural South Carolina lack internet speeds considered even minimally acceptable, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And that speed is still five times slower than the lowest-price service offered to customers in the Columbia area.
“I would go so far as to say this is a crisis,” state Rep. Bill Taylor, an Aiken Republican, said during a House Oversight hearing on an agency that provides grants for water and sewer services. “This is critical, and we’ve got to pay attention.”
A bill allowing the Rural Infrastructure Authority to also provide grants to extend high-speed internet to poor, rural areas passed the House unanimously last year and awaits action in the Senate.
Another potential solution introduced in the Senate last week is the "Broadband Accessibility Act." The bill, co-sponsored by 32 senators, encourages South Carolina's electric cooperatives — which provides electricity to 1.5 million rural customers statewide — to also offer high-speed internet by partnering with private businesses to finance and build the necessary lines.
“The co-ops already have most of the transmission lines we may need and there’s no new introduction of customers,” said its main sponsor, Sen. John Scott, a Columbia Democrat.
Large internet providers are reluctant to offer services in rural areas because the low number of customers makes it cost prohibitive. But running broadband along existing lines cuts down on those expenses.
The co-ops support the measure. Bringing them into the mix as internet providers is a logical step, said Michael Couick, CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.
“We want to go where other people won’t and provide the service,” he said.
Several co-ops have already begun to do so, include the Newberry Electric Cooperative, which serves four Midland counties.
CEO Keith Avery said he was troubled by the lack of reliable in-home internet service for his nearly 14,000 members.
“We had kids hanging out at McDonald’s and the coffee house to get Wi-Fi so they could do their homework, so we had to do something,” he said.
In 2018, the cooperative began installing fiber communications equipment at its substations, providing access to reliable broadband services.
“If anybody was going to go into the rural area, it was going to be the cooperative,” Avery said.
Others already providing the service include the Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative, which serves five counties from Aiken to Richland, and Lynches River, which has customers in Chesterfield, Kershaw and Lancaster counties.
State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman knows personally the difference it makes. The Saluda County resident is a customer of Mid-Carolina, which began offering high-speed internet in 2018.
For students, high-speed internet "opens the world for them," she said.
It means teachers can download video quickly and use the internet in lessons without "the little circle going around and around," she added.
"We're encouraging students to do a lot of project-based learning, do their homework at home, and a future without that is going to be very neglected," Spearman said. "We've had cases where we're not been able to give online testing because of the capacity of the school."
New school buses bought by the state Department of Education have Wi-Ffi on board. But that still leaves too many children with no access at home, she said.
State Rep. Robert Williams, a Darlington Democrat, said bringing higher internet speeds to South Carolina’s sparsely populated areas will also benefit farmers.
“They have problems getting on the net or accessing satellites for their machinery, and to have broadband in those areas, I think, is very critical,” he said.