Politics & Government

Lagging internet left rural SC biz stranded. Lawmakers seek to fix ‘digital divide’

This is how broadband internet gets to your house

There are six ways in which broadband can reach households and businesses including digital subscriber lines, cable modem services, fiber optic technology, wireless, satellite and broadband over power line.
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There are six ways in which broadband can reach households and businesses including digital subscriber lines, cable modem services, fiber optic technology, wireless, satellite and broadband over power line.

Orders were coming in and business was brisk, yet dozens of jobs hung in the balance for a rural S.C. manufacturer — all because of lagging internet.

“The company was growing, but we could not reliably communicate with our (global) customers ... because of either insufficient or unreliable service,” said David Cline, owner of Piedmont CMG, near Ware Shoals.

The company machines manifolds, tubing and other plastic components for the medical device industry at plants in Greenwood and Abbeville. But frequent drops in internet service meant workers could not download blueprints and files from its customers due to “extremely limited” bandwidth, Cline said.

“We also couldn’t talk amongst ourselves reliably,” he said, noting difficulty communicating between the company’s production facilities. “Weather, sometimes affected service, along with squirrels or rodents chewing on the lines.

“There were extreme limitations, even on a good day.”

As state officials debate ways to lift up blighted rural communities, a common obstacle is standing in their way: high-speed internet access.

More than a half million South Carolinians are being left out of the digital economy due to lagging rural broadband access, according to the latest federal data. Those broadband deserts hurt efforts to expand health care, education and workforce development.

A bi-partisan group of S.C. lawmakers hopes to fix that.

A bill in the state House would provide state grants to help pay for the cost to expand broadband in economically distressed counties in the state. Applicants would be required to show that local residents, government, businesses and institutions support the project, according to the bill. State officials could claw back grant money if companies fail to keep their promises, including advertised connection speeds.

State money would be supplemented with federal dollars, and grant recipients would be required to provide matching funds.

Supporters say the state’s help in closing the digital divide is long overdue.

“We do it with water. We do it with sewer. We bring in roads,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brian White, a Republican from rural Anderson County. “But, somehow, when it comes to the internet, we just don’t do it.”

Half a million in SC lack broadband

Most days Marlboro County Administrator Ronald Munnerlyn passes the same man leaned up against the Bennettsville library with a laptop and jury-rigged extension cord.

In Marlboro, a lack of internet access and weak or spotty service is an everyday reality. After hours it’s not uncommon to see several people sitting with laptops on benches outside to access the library’s high-speed wireless internet, Munnerlyn said.

Most county residents can send an email and view a website, but there’s not enough signal strength to stream high-definition video, or share or download many files. For others, there’s no service at all, he said.

More than 530,000 South Carolinians -- or about 11 percent of the state’s population -- lacked access to internet speeds considered adequate by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016, according to a recent report.

Across the country, 55 million people lacked adequate internet fast enough, for example, for a student to do an online homework assignment or stream a video lesson without processing delays indicated by spinning icons.

The federal communications agency has set benchmark speeds of 25 megabits a second for downloading and three megabits a second for uploading. Urban S.C. communities -- Charleston, Columbia and Greenville -- have internet speeds that far exceed those benchmarks, quadrupling download speeds and tripling upload speeds.

But in some rural S.C. counties, including Marlboro, those speeds are nearly nonexistent. And more than 300,000 S.C. residents lack access to even basic internet service, with download speeds of 10 megabits a second and 1 megabit a second for uploading, according to the FCC.

“The speeds are like dial-up level service,” Munnerlyn said of his rural county.

“In this day and age, high-speed internet is the equivalent of electricity. You just can’t function without it,” he said. “Even folks living below the poverty level have to have this for kids to do school work, look for jobs and access health care records. This is no longer a luxury. It is part of our day-to-day life.”

Bridging the ‘homework gap’

Poor internet access presents barriers to learning for rural students, education advocates say, pointing to small-scale efforts to address the problem.

And while every school in the state is connected to high-speed broadband internet, ensuring students have internet access in their homes remains a challenge, said Melanie Barton, executive director of the state’s Education Oversight Committee.

At Pelion Middle School in Lexington County, about 200 students can get online and do homework on their laptops during their up to 90-minute bus ride home.

The school district partnered with Google in 2017 to equip six buses with Wi-Fi, mobile routers and on-board tutors. The effort is aimed at bridging the “homework gap” — the disparity between students who have high-speed internet access at home and those who don’t. Google’s “rolling study halls,” as they are called, first hit the streets in South Carolina a few years ago in Berkeley County.

Some Lexington 1 students have internet access only at school or at the library, with an unreliable dial-up connection or no internet access at all at home, said Howard Bissell, director of online learning for the school district.

“We are asking students to learn at a deeper level and leverage technology to become better communicators and collaborators and think creatively,” Bissell said. “We can put technology in kids hands and give them high-speed internet access on campus, but we also have to make sure they have access and opportunity outside of our schools to (extend their learning).”

Health care, economic development key

Efforts to revitalize rural communities, whether improving access to health care or encouraging economic investment, also face challenges because of internet problems. The state’s help, advocates say, is much needed.

“(A)ccess to reliable, affordable broadband might be the single most important factor to improve life in rural communities and help to close the gap between rural and urban,” said Graham Adams, chief executive officer of the S.C. Office of Rural Health.

Rural hospital closures, for example, have placed pressure on the need to expand telemedicine, which allows doctors to video conference with patients in rural areas.

South Carolina has done well connecting providers to broadband — spending $11 million or more a year for the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance, said Jimmy McElligott, medical director for the Center for Telehealth at the Medical University of South Carolina. However, he added, the state lags when it comes to connecting patients, who also need adequate access to internet, to doctors online.

“The next frontier is patients’ homes,” McElligott said. “That’s where we face the biggest barriers.”

Telecommunications companies also have projects aimed to help rural areas.

Charter Communication and Spectrum Cable are partnering on a $1 million project to provide internet service to 650 previously unserved homes in Lamar, a town in rural Darlington County, said Ben Breazeale, a Charter spokesman. And AT&T in 2017 launched fixed wireless internet service to more than 17,000 households in rural parts of 24 counties in South Carolina, the company’s spokesman Clifton Metcalf said.

White, the lawmaker sponsoring the broadband legislation, said he envisions about $30 million going toward the program by 2030.

That state support would bolster smaller-scale efforts to address the problem, advocates say.

For example, Cline of Piedmont CMG found a solution to his internet problem in 2012 through a regional telephone cooperative in neighboring Laurens County that ran fiber to his Greenwood and Abbeville plants. “That was a game changer for us,” Cline said. “We went from being constantly shut down ... and extremely unsuccessful and unreliable ... to doubling in size with 85 employees, and we’re still growing.”

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.


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