South Carolina's Bipartisan Efforts on the 'Next, Next Greatest Thing'

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, March 10, 2023

Weekly Digest

South Carolina's Bipartisan Efforts on the 'Next, Next Greatest Thing'

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of March 6-10, 2023

Kevin Taglang

"Access to broadband internet connectivity is no longer a luxury—it is a necessity, especially for those in rural areas. Emergency response, health care access, education—all increasingly rely on high-speed internet access."Governor Henry McMaster (R-SC)

A discussion about universal broadband access in South Carolina must begin with Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC). His belief that rural America deserves the same high-speed internet service level that is enjoyed by urban and suburban America led him to form the Rural Broadband Task Force and develop legislation to promote high-speed internet accessibility, affordability, and adoption. His proposal helped pave the way for the broadband provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

“Speaking to a gathering in a small rural Tennessee church in the early 1940s, a farmer proclaimed, ‘Brothers and sisters: I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on Earth is to have the love of God in your heart. And the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.’ Just as the Great Depression made clear to all that electricity was the ‘next greatest thing’ in the 20th century, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear to all that broadband is the ‘next next greatest thing’ in the 21st century,” said Rep. Clyburn.

“This is not a partisan issue, this is not a racial issue. We just ought to make every home accessible to affordable, high-quality broadband.”—Rep. Clyburn

Residents of South Carolina are now starting to enjoy the fruits of the bipartisan efforts of Rep. Clyburn and Governor Henry McMaster (R-SC) to extend broadband's reach. Through a combination of state and federal funds, South Carolina has dedicated a total of nearly $480 million to be invested in expanding access to broadband services throughout the state—most notably in rural areas which previously didn’t have any access.

Appearing together in October 2022 to discuss the state's progress on universal broadband, Gov. McMaster said, "Our rural areas are loaded with talent, and it is vital to our future prosperity that our rural areas and everyone in our state has broadband access. Thanks to Congressman Clyburn, and our entire team, we are making great progress. The best is yet to come."

Rep. Clyburn added, "I want to thank the governor for doing something that a lot of people with less vision did not do. Through the State Broadband office and its leadership, South Carolina has created a model that other states are now following. When it comes to education, health, or anything else—broadband will make it all more accessible and affordable."

The Digital Divide in South Carolina

Hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians don’t have any access to the internet—or they have access to networks that don't offer service that is reliable enough for residents to do what they need to do.

BroadbandNow ranks South Carolina 27th in the nation for internet coverage, speed, and availability. Approximately 94 percent of residents have access to broadband service with speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Over 91 percent of residents have access to 100 Mbps broadband, but less than half have access to 1 gigabit broadband. Less than 40 percent of residents have access to fiber-optic networks and just half of all residents have access to a wired broadband plan that costs $60/month or less. 

“Small towns have fallen into decay because they don’t have the digital infrastructure necessary to maintain a modern economy.”—Tom Allen with the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff

Although some counties enjoy near-ubiquitous access to broadband (Horry, Abbeville, Richland, Greenville, Beaufort, and Lexington lead the way), too many have coverage of less than 75 percent of residents (including Jasper, Edgefield, Saluda, Barnwell, Hampton, Bamberg, Marlboro, and Allendale). 

The South Carolina Hospital Association (SCHA) says a lack of access to hospitals in some rural areas is an issue. Some counties, such as Marlboro, have lost their hospitals over the years. The association said that can have a negative impact on an area’s overall health and economy. SCHA's Schipp Ames said virtual care has the potential to close gaps, but that is dependent on broadband infrastructure.

The Office of Broadband Coordinator

In 2021, the South Carolina General Assembly established the Office of Broadband Coordinator within the Office of Regulatory Staff to serve as the central broadband planning body for the state and to coordinate with federal, state, regional, local, and private entities to encourage the continued development of access to broadband in the Palmetto State.

The office was charged with convening a collaborative stakeholder process to identify challenges to expediting broadband access—and so it established the Broadband Advisory Council to help guide broadband planning in South Carolina. The council includes representatives from government, education, health, economic development, nonprofits, and broadband providers. 

The 2021 law also directed the office to prioritize funding broadband infrastructure projects to rural communities and communities with a lack of access to broadband, making high-speed broadband available to homes, businesses, schools, health care facilities, and other institutions in unserved areas across South Carolina. 

The office was also charged with collecting data for a county-by-county state broadband map. 

To achieve the goal of universal or near-universal broadband access, the South Carolina Broadband Office works to model, map and plan so as to efficiently and strategically make investments where broadband access does not exist or where an area is underserved, meaning not all homes within a census block have access to the internet. Engaging stakeholders, coordinating with state and local governments, and providing community and technical support, are critical to meeting the goal of expanded access.

South Carolina Broadband Grant Programs

South Carolina has administered a number of state broadband grant programs.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funds were allocated to the Office of Regulatory Staff prior to the creation of the broadband office but served as the foundation from which other grant programs were developed. The Accelerated Deployment Grant Program seeks to compensate broadband providers for a portion of the construction costs for the expansion of broadband infrastructure to households, businesses, and communities in South Carolina that are unserved. A second tranche of CARES funds invested an additional $10 million to complete projects begun under the first tranche. The broadband office invested nearly $7.9 million in 17 projects, from 8 different broadband providers, resulting in 6,116 additional locations with access to the internet. South Carolina also invested CARES money into:

  • procuring mobile hotspots and monthly internet service for qualifying student households ($12 million);
  • securing a vendor for the development of a broadband statewide county-by-county mapping plan and statewide broadband infrastructure plan ($300k to CostQuest); and
  • expansion of broadband infrastructure with emphasis on services to rural communities and communities with a high prevalence of COVID-19 or with demographic characteristics consistent with risk factors for COVID-19 ($17 million to 78 projects).

In March 2021, the South Carolina Joint Bond Review Committee approved an allocation of $30 million from the SC Department of Commerce to the Office of Regulatory Staff to administer the Rural Broadband Grant Program (RBGP). These investments were restricted to 14 eligible counties and 15 contiguous counties. (Of the $30 million, only $7 million could be invested in contiguous counties.) Projects were awarded in Allendale (three Allendale County projects were later relinquished), Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Berkeley, Chester, Chesterfield, Clarendon, Fairfield, Georgetown, Hampton, Jasper, Lancaster, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, Newberry, Orangeburg, and Williamsburg counties. The program is designed to support networks that can deliver broadband service capable of 100/20 Mbps for wireline and 50/5 Mbps for fixed wireless as a minimum (higher speeds are preferred) and which are installed, owned, and operated by experienced broadband companies.

The Last Mile Grant Program (LMGP) is a $1 million pilot grant program focused on reaching consumers in areas that are generally considered “served” but are still without access due to the cost of delivering service to their homes. An example would be a home that has a mile-long driveway or a set of homes that are located on the other side of railroad tracks or on the other side of a bridge such that the cost of reaching the homes has not been within the reach of the nearby broadband provider. By May 2022, $1.3 million had been committed by the program to connect at least 569 homes.

In May 2022, Act 244 allocated $400,000,000 to the broadband office using funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund ($214,234,345) and the Capital Projects Fund ($185,765,655). All of South Carolina's American Rescue Plan Act funds must be awarded through competitive grant processes. In addition to the funding, the state legislature charged the broadband office with:

  • administering a grant program to expand broadband infrastructure to households, businesses, and communities in the state that are unserved or underserved by broadband services;
  • providing technical assistance and coordination;
  • hosting and participating in stakeholder discussions and advisory groups;
  • supporting continued mapping efforts; and
  • expending funds for alternative and enabling technologies including, but not limited to, wireless broadband service, low earth orbit satellite, middle‑mile fiber, enhanced cellular service, and carrier-neutral broadband infrastructure.

The legislature emphasized that the broadband office expedite the grantmaking process and prioritize projects that could be completed quickly. 

In March 2023, the U.S. Treasury approved South Carolina's plan to use Capital Projects Fund support to establish the Next, Next Greatest Thing | Main Street, South Carolina (MAIN ST) grant program. South Carolina's entire Capital Projects Fund allocation will fund the competitive last-mile broadband grant program designed to provide affordable, reliable broadband service to rural areas that currently have no internet service. Within those eligible areas, the MAIN ST program prioritizes projects that will deliver broadband to rural town centers and the surrounding residential areas. Networks deployed with the funding will provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses. Operators will participate in the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program which provides a $30 per month subsidy for low-income families. South Carolina estimates that MAIN ST will connect 23 percent of the locations in the state that lack broadband access. 

Additional Federal Support

The Catawba Indian Nation in Rock Hill, South Carolina, received a Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program award from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to provide free or reduced cost broadband service to 1,790 Native American tribal households. The project, with $900,000 in federal funding, will provide broadband service to tribal households with either seniors or school-age children, and a 50% service discount for all other tribal households for six months as well funds to purchase laptops for five tribal employees engaged in telehealth and economic development-related activities.

Two South Carolina institutions won Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program awards from the NTIA:

  1. Benedict College will decrease the digital divide for college students and members of the targeted anchor communities by improving IT infrastructure through the installation of hotspot towers, thereby increasing student academic achievement and graduation and retention rates at the college, and improving adult learning and job readiness through the development of a community learning center and loan device program. The project activities fall into two phases: the infrastructure phase will expand Benedict College’s broadband capacity and access for students, faculty, and staff by upgrading the internal Wi-Fi infrastructure to support higher level network security and access; the community engagement phase will establish a community learning center and loaner device program for the target population to increase student academic achievement, retention, and graduation rates. 
  2. Claflin University will bridge both on-campus and near-campus broadband divides for Claflin University’s underserved students. In addition, the university will develop a Digital Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program that will allow Claflin University to fully leverage and maximize new investments in broadband and technology. The project will upgrade the university broadband network in all major campus buildings and residential halls. Also, the university will introduce a new Student Technology Equity Program (STEP) that provides long-term loans of laptops and hotspot access points to assist students with coursework. Finally, Claflin will upgrade campus wireless access points to meet new standards.

Finally, in December 2022, NTIA awarded South Carolina  $5,953,478 in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed internet service throughout the state. South Carolina received $5 million for:

  • Development of a comprehensive Five-Year Action Plan identifying South Carolina's broadband access, affordability, equity, and adoption needs;
  • More precise assessment of the actual barriers residents are facing that impact their ability to access reliable broadband service;
  • Verification of construction as grant-funded projects come on-line; and
  • Consistent, professional messaging to better inform stakeholders that will contribute to a more collaborative, cohesive Five-Year Action Plan.

South Carolina also received nearly a million dollars for:

  • The development of a Statewide Digital Equity Plan;
  • Staff recruitment and development; and
  • Community and stakeholder engagement.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Mar 10—Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee Meeting (NTIA)

Mar 10—Round 3 of the Connect Illinois Broadband Grant Program (Illinois Office of Broadband)

Mar 13—California Digital Equity Summit (CENIC)

Mar 15—2023 State of Telecom Policy (Verizon)

Mar 15—Little Nuggets of Tech and Telecom (Georgetown University)

Mar 16—March 2023 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)

Mar 20—US Spectrum Allocation Needs Reform: Lessons From the C-Band Controversy (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation)

Mar 23—Creating ‘good jobs’ for vulnerable workers in in the broadband sector (Brookings)

Mar 28—America Connected (Total Telecom)

Mar 28—Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force Meeting (FCC)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.