Almost every aspect of life depends, in some part, on a reliable, high-speed Internet connection. But despite the drastic technological advances of the Information Age, 19 million people throughout the country still lack access to the Federal Communication Commission’s standard for reliable Internet.
In South Carolina, 344,000 people do not have access to this standard, and 171,000 people do not have access to a wired connection at all.
“I truly believe, and I think COVID-19 has proven that Internet technology is the foundation by which you build a 21st century community,” said Jim Stritzinger, founder of Revolution D, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in geospatial artificial intelligence, especially the deployment of high speed Internet in rural communities.
Without quality Internet; education, healthcare, and employment become much more difficult to obtain. This can become exacerbated in rural regions and areas of high poverty. However, Stritzinger said almost every county in the Palmetto State has an area of need.
He points to Richland County, which is very populous but still has pockets that “feel very rural and very apart from the downtown urban areas.” Stritzinger said in many cases, people want to pay for Internet service but there are no providers for their address.
In rural Bamberg County, an estimated 70 percent of homes with school-aged children lacked an adequate Internet connection when the novel Coronavirus pandemic struck in March, according to Kathy Schwarting, CEO of Palmetto Care Connections. Initially, most of those children were not able to participate in remote learning while students in neighboring districts attended school virtually.
Palmetto Care Connections, a nonprofit telehealth network, has worked for ten years to connect healthcare providers to patients in rural communities through telehealth. Schwarting said a reliable Internet connection is essential not just for education and employment, but also healthcare.
State legislators have allocated millions of dollars toward improving broadband coverage throughout the state. Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, said expanding broadband coverage will take several years and the work goes beyond establishing the infrastructure itself.
“Just having broadband is not enough,” Alexander said. “We have to have adoptability and we have to have affordability.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn formed the House Task Force on Rural Broadband within the Democratic Caucus of the House of Representatives. He said he did so because he felt strongly that there “needs to be a coordinated, concerted effort to get broadband to be treated like all other infrastructure projects.” For him, the demand for broadband is about access to healthcare and education.
“This is not a partisan issue, this is not a racial issue,” Clyburn said. “We just ought to make every home accessible to affordable high quality broadband.”