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SC to start broadband expansion, but it may only scratch the surface of state’s needs

By September 9, 2020No Comments

By Joseph Bustos
September 08, 2020 05:00 AM , Updated September 08, 2020 09:25 AM

More than $50 million worth of broadband expansion projects will start this month in 23 counties around the state to help close the internet service gap exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shovel-ready projects are being made possible, in part, with funding from the CARES Act, federal coronavirus aid that must be spent by the end of the year. The dollars will help internet providers expand service to areas where it may take longer to turn a profit.

As of Thursday, the Office of Regulatory Staff, a state agency tasked with providing internet connections to needy state residents during the pandemic, has approved 71 projects to expand broadband in 23 counties, including Orangeburg, Lancaster, Lexington and Fairfield counties. The agency will reimburse broadband companies 50% of the project costs, said Nanette Edwards the director of ORS.

“What they’ve done is they’ve tried to pick up areas where they knew they could do it quickly. I think that’s why you see it dispersed,” Edwards said.

The broadband projects are a good start, but also a drop in the bucket toward closing the state’s broadband access gap. There are 650,000 South Carolinians and 180,000 households in the state without high-speed internet access. One broadband expert in the state says it would cost $800 million to connect the rest of the households in the state without broadband access.
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ORS expects contractors to begin the small expansion projects this month and complete them before the end of the year, before the Dec. 31 deadline for spending CARES Act money.

And ORS did not have the number of households that are expected to have broadband access immediately available after the projects are complete.

The agency is working to create a broadband map to determine its own estimate of what it would take to completely build out broadband in the state, but acknowledged that the money being spent now is small.

“I think it’s really hard to give it a concrete number to say this is what it’s really going to cost to do a complete build out of the state of South Carolina to every structure that’s capable of having internet,” Edwards said.

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