(TNS) — Bringing high-speed Internet to the nearly half a million South Carolinians currently living without it could cost more than $800 million, a broadband mapping expert said after speaking to lawmakers Wednesday.
To help make that happen, providers will need government subsidies to help providers reach sparsely populated areas, said Jim Stritzinger, the president and CEO of Revolution D, a consulting firm that works to make maps of broadband service levels.
“The only way we’re going to reach the rural areas is by federal subsidy or state subsidy because the economics don’t make sense,” Stritzinger said at House COVID-19 Public Education committee.
The state’s rural broadband problem has come into sharp focus as coronavirus has swept the state, closing schools to in-person learning and putting a hamper on face-to-face doctors visits.
Nearly 435,000 people in 192,000 households in the state either have no Internet service provider available or have Internet service that isn’t capable for a person to have a telehealth visit or for a student to stream a video for a lesson, Stritzinger said.
The need for students to be able to connect to the Internet for school has become a top priority as school districts switched to virtual learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. Only 19 of the more than 80 school districts in the state were able to complete that transition fully to online learning, underscoring long-standing technology challenges across the state. Telehealth visits also became more vital to limit the spread of the virus.
AccelerateSC, a group of business and health leaders in the state appointed by Gov. Henry McMaster to develop a plan for safely reopening the economy, recommended the state spend $80 million of federal CARES Act money on broadband infrastructure and additional $20 million for mobile hotspots.
Expanding broadband involves laying fiber optic cable in the ground or along existing telephone poles to areas where households could connect to the service. Stritzinger said it costs $38,000 per mile to deploy fiber.
He added communities could attract help bring broadband to an area by laying conduit first and making it easier for a provider to run fiber later.
With votes this week, the Legislature ultimately approved only $50 million broadband Internet access: $20 million is set aside to purchase mobile hotspots, $29.7 million will go to broadband infrastructure and $300,000 has been set aside for mapping.
Although that amount is far short of the $800 million estimate, it is still a good start, Stritzinger said.
“Eighty million dollars can be deployed pretty quickly, especially with little opposition, in areas of the state where there are no other providers,” Stritzinger said after the committee hearing. “It would really help.”
State Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, on Wednesday attempted to have broadband spending increased to the AccelerateSC recommended level, even though the her amendment failed.
“Dealing with broadband is important. This is not limited to education for children,” Brawley said. “It has to do with telehealth, telemedicine, job applications or working from home.”
State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means committee said he’s hopeful there will be more state investment on broadband. However, federal money from the CARES Act needs to be spent by the end of the year.
”We’ve got a commitment by both parties and both bodies to invest in broadband, and so it’s incumbent upon us to develop a plan on how we’re going to enact that broadband,” Smith said.
The Office of Regulatory Staff is in the process of developing a broadband plan, in conjunction with entities such as broadband providers, electric utilities and telephone service providers, for the state that includes mapping to determine where broadband exists and where it’s needed. The goal is to reach universal broadband.
Broadband would take time to build out. So in the mean time, to help students who may still have to rely on virtual learning, ORS is prepared to purchase 150,000 mobile hotspots to help students without Internet access at home.
“I’m still very concerned about the 15,000 or so children that we have not touched since they left school on Friday, March 13th,” said state Rep. Raye Felder, R-York.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who also is the Democratic whip in the House, said at a news conference Wednesday that broadband access is as important in the daily lives of Americans as electricity and that the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased Americans’ need for reliable Internet access at home.
”Education cannot be effective or available without broadband,” Clyburn said, adding that “COVID-19 has closed schools. And if you’ve got broadband, you continue with your learning. If you don’t have broadband, your learning came to a close.”
Clyburn, who leads an all-Democrat task force focused on rural broadband, said the task force was able to get include $100 billion for broadband infrastructure expansion among other initiatives into a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill introduced last week by House Democrats.
However, given that Republicans control the U.S. Senate, the legislation is unlikely to move forward if passed by the House.
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