(TNS) — More than $50 million worth of broadband expansion projects will start this month in 23 counties around the state to help close the internet service gap exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The shovel-ready projects are being made possible, in part, with funding from the CARES Act, federal coronavirus aid that must be spent by the end of the year. The dollars will help internet providers expand service to areas where it may take longer to turn a profit.
As of Thursday, the Office of Regulatory Staff, a state agency tasked with providing internet connections to needy state residents during the pandemic, has approved 71 projects to expand broadband in 23 counties, including Orangeburg, Lancaster, Lexington and Fairfield counties. The agency will reimburse broadband companies 50 percent of the project costs, said Nanette Edwards the director of ORS. “What they’ve done is they’ve tried to pick up areas where they knew they could do it quickly. I think that’s why you see it dispersed,” Edwards said.
The broadband projects are a good start, but also a drop in the bucket toward closing the state’s broadband access gap. There are 650,000 South Carolinians and 180,000 households in the state without high-speed internet access. One broadband expert in the state says it would cost $800 million to connect the rest of the households in the state without broadband access.
ORS expects contractors to begin the small expansion projects this month and complete them before the end of the year, before the Dec. 31 deadline for spending CARES Act money.
And ORS did not have the number of households that are expected to have broadband access immediately available after the projects are complete.
The agency is working to create a broadband map to determine its own estimate of what it would take to completely build out broadband in the state, but acknowledged that the money being spent now is small.
“I think it’s really hard to give it a concrete number to say this is what it’s really going to cost to do a complete buildout of the state of South Carolina to every structure that’s capable of having internet,” Edwards said.
A Problem Before COVID-19
The coronavirus has brought the state’s poor broadband infrastructure into sharp focus, testing the ability of providers to provide critical services.
Forced online to limit the spread of COVID-19, schools have struggled to reach all students virtually and doctors have seen demand increase for telehealth visits.
ORS also is using federal COVID-19 relief money to provide internet access for financially needy households.
More than 100,000 households in the Palmetto State have received temporary internet connections through a state program, mostly through mobile hotspots.
But those hotspots are no substitute for broadband, which provides the faster download and upload speeds necessary for livestreaming. And because many households still don’t have broadband access, lawmakers are looking at ways to continue broadband expansion.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said during a hearing on Thursday he wants to see broadband expansion accelerated in the state.
“I want us to look at and see if there’s anything we can do to expedite broadband all over the state, because if we miss this opportunity, I don’t think it’ll ever come again,” Leatherman said. “I want to make sure that we’re not the state that’s left here with the doughnut holes all over the state, don’t have service.”
Projects Target Rural Areas
The projects will serve various purposes.
Aiken Electric is bringing broadband to schools in order to provide free WiFi to students.
In another set of projects, internet and phone company Comporium plans to bring broadband to 671 households and 76 businesses in the Van Wyck area in Lancaster County, according to its applications for $1.3 million of CARES Act money.
Most of Van Wyck does not have broadband service, Mayor Sean Corcoran wrote to ORS supporting a Comporium applications. The area’s rural nature with a small population makes it more expensive for companies to bring in high-speed internet lines to serve fewer customers than it would be to bring service to more highly populated areas.
“Unfortunately, due to the rural nature of our community, there is not sufficient economic incentive to improve our telecommunications infrastructure,” Corcoran wrote to ORS supporting a Comporium application.
Companies only get paid for work that is completed and the service is available.
If the projects can’t be completed by December, Edwards said companies were asked to set milestones in their projects so at least part of a targeted area has service available before the end of the year, and the companies can receive part of their approved CARES Act reimbursement.
Lee Chambers, the CEO of Sandhill Telephone Cooperative, a telephone, broadband and TV provider in the Pee Dee region, said the co-op plans to start an expansion of broadband in the next two weeks in Marlboro County.
The company will carry out $2.2 million worth of work in five projects. The projects had been on the books on a wish list for three years and will make broadband available to between 1,000 and 1,500 customers’ homes in a rural area.
“Right now I think there’s such a pent up demand for it with people working from home, with telemedicine needs, (and) with virtual education,” Chambers said. “If you go into areas where people are starving from lack of internet and if they can afford it, they’re going to get it.”
Sandhill plans to to extend 17 to 20 miles worth of aerial lines from existing electricity poles.
Without CARES Act money, it would take 15 years to recoup this type of investment. With the CARES money, that time could be cut to five years.
“We’re going into areas that the larger companies traditionally have overlooked, for the same reason everybody has overlooked them,” Chambers said. “It’s hard to cost justify spending upwards to $1,500 a home just for a connection.”
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