Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness, and a better way of life. It is enabling entire new industries to flourish and unlocking vast new possibilities for existing ones. It is changing how we educate children, deliver health care, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government, and access, organize and disseminate knowledge.
However, the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 650,000 South Carolinians don’t have access to broadband internet, including more than 552,000 people who live in the rural areas of our state and more than 97,000 who live in urban areas.
As the COVID-19 pandemic led to directives to practice social distancing and stay at home as much as possible, those without adequate access to high-speed internet have been at a great disadvantage. This includes school children having trouble completing their online education assignments, the elderly and those without transportation who are challenged trying to get necessities for living, countless individuals unable to take advantage of telehealth options, and some employees who must work from home.
Help is on the way. In September 2020, S.C. lawmakers passed legislation that will allow electric co-ops and Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric utility that provides power to co-ops that serve mostly rural areas, to lease out space on existing power poles to broadband providers interested in expanding internet access into communities that need it. The legislation also sets up a way for electric co-ops to expand broadband themselves.
In addition, the Office of Regulatory Staff, a state agency tasked with providing internet connections to needy state residents during the pandemic, approved $50 million worth of broadband construction projects slated to be finished by late 2020 or early 2021. It’s estimated this project will allow more than 25,000 households and more than 1,000 businesses that didn’t have access to now be able to get service.
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