Shortages of broadband internet access across large sections of rural South Carolina have stymied our state’s economic growth since the 1990s. Lack of adequate internet service in these areas has also negatively impacted untold thousands of households that could have benefited from recent advances in telemedicine and remote educational learning opportunities.
Fortunately, in our rural area of Daufuskie Island, we have been able to get ahead of the problem. This was thanks to some astute local members of the Daufuskie Island Council who had learned about a new federal program called Re-Connect, which in 2019 had begun providing federal financial assistance to rural areas nationwide that needed broadband.
Led by Leanne Coulter and Kathy Aurinco, they called the situation to my attention late last year together with local internet provider, Hargray Communications, which said it would step up to help if I could “cut through some red tape.”
The bureaucratic obstacle was that Daufuskie Island wasn’t considered by the federal government to be an “eligible rural area for funding” due to the presence of a high-end luxury private community (Haig Point Club), and the lofty net worth of its residents, which distorted the average income of the entire island.
Happily, I was able to reach the right people at the statehouse who helped turn things around. They were able to convince the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – overseers of the Re-Connect Program – that Daufuskie Island represented a unique situation, and the people living in the island’s historic district were indeed eligible.
Better yet, when COVID-19 hit this past spring and our local Beaufort County School District opted to introduce remote online instruction instead of in-school attendance, our Daufuskie Island program was underway.
Hot spots were put in place and the connections to more than 100 homes will be completed this month.
Clearly there is a need for better broadband in South Carolina. A major data aggregation firm, Broadband Now, ranks states based on good quality broadband services. Only 36% of South Carolina qualifies, compared to 81% in North Carolina and 61% in Georgia.
This past spring the pandemic exacerbated everything. Our state department of education reported that only 19 of the state’s 79 school districts were able to fully transition to learning online and our ability to respond to health needs has been greatly burdened. With hospitals overrun with COVID cases, telehealth has become crucial for patients needing medical advice, diagnoses and treatments.
Wide consensus now exists in the General Assembly that action must be taken, and a bill was passed Sept. 27 to allow electric co-ops to lease out space on existing power poles to broadband providers interested in expanding internet access to communities that need it.
Of that action, my boss, Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, said, “Today is a good day, and a good start for South Carolina. Expanded access equals expanded opportunity – something every South Carolinian deserves.”
I certainly agree.
Jeff Bradley is the representative for District 123 in the State House of Representatives.