An estimated 650,000 South Carolinians don’t have high-speed internet access, making it nearly impossible go to a virtual class. So, as a temporary fix for that problem, schools have requested the state pay for internet access for 57,000 households for the upcoming school year mostly through mobile hotspots.
Those requests are expected to increase as the academic year nears and parents decide whether to send their students to school for in-person instruction.
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the lack of broadband access in some areas, especially rural communities. Students need reliable and fast broadband to take classes online in virtual classrooms, and patients need it to attend telehealth visits.
State officials are using $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to provide access to the internet and expand broadband access around the state. However, federal lawmakers say more is needed and are proposing spending billions of dollars to expand broadband across the country.
While lawmakers are looking at ways to expand broadband service access for the long term, the Office of Regulatory Staff is working on short-term solutions aimed at helping students take their classes virtually.
ORS is prepared to buy as many as 150,000 mobile hotspots for students in kindergarten through 12th grade as well as for technical school and college students whose families meet certain income requirements.
So far, ORS is set to provide internet through hotspots or wired connections to 57,000 households that didn’t have internet at home prior to the pandemic, said ORS Executive Director Nanette Edwards during a Tuesday Joint Bond Review Committee hearing, who added orders are being made every day.
The 57,000 connections represent about $8 million of the $20 million budgeted for the program.
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The program allows for one internet connection or hot spot per low-income household without internet service.
ORS asked school districts to send in requests by Wednesday; however, not all schools have their reopening plans finalized and families have to make their decisions on whether to send students to the classrooms.
Schools may not know the total need until students register for classes, Edwards said, who added a second wave of requests may come in after Labor Day.
Allowing those households to keep the hotspots next year will require additional investments from lawmakers who are writing the state budget.
Under federal provisions in the CARES Act, ORS will only be able to use federal money to pay the monthly bill for the hotspots through the end of the year because the federal money must be spent by Dec. 31.
The agency hopes lawmakers, who return to work in September to finalize the state spending plan, will commit additional dollars toward paying the hotspot monthly bills for the second part of the school year.
Wired and long-term fixes
Still, ensuring reliable broadband service cannot be done just through hotspots, as the download speed may vary between 5 and 12 mbps, ORS said. A longer term solution is needed, lawmakers say.
“It’s important for us to realize that’s just a Band-Aid. That’s just a stop gap measure,” said State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
State legislators appropriated $50 million of federal COVID-19 relief money South Carolina received to expanding broadband access, which includes mapping current broadband availability in the state. Private companies have put together broadband maps, and the state is working to obtain and own the data, ORS said.
Chris Rozycki,the ORS broadband project administrator, estimated that at least 180,000 households don’t have broadband internet access.
“Could it be more? Yes,” Rozycki told lawmakers. “Is it going to be less, I don’t think so. I think the 180,000 could be kind of the floor.”
One estimate put the number at as high as 192,000 households, and it would cost $800 million to connect them to broadband fast enough to have a telehealth visit or watch video for classroom lessons.
The FCC estimates 650,000 South Carolinians don’t have access to broadband internet, including more than 552,000 people who live in rural areas, and more than 97,000 people who live in urban areas.
However, the exact data is in the hands of internet providers, including which homes may have broadband in their neighborhood, but have not connected.
“All of that real time data is in the hands of the vendors, and having the vendors feed that into the system is what’s going to make that really valuable,” said Ron Aiken, spokesman for ORS.
Putting together a broadband map for South Carolina could cost about $300,000 to map the entire state.
“It tells us there are pockets and holes everywhere,” Rozycki said. “We have to get pretty precise on addresses to know where everyone is. Once we know that, we know where we’re going to target money and broadband service providers know to address that community. ... Without that specificity an accuracy, we’re just shooting in the dark.”
The state had set aside $30 million just for broadband mapping and for the build out of broadband infrastructure around South Carolina.
Federal lawmakers also have made proposals to expand access.
U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott this week are introducing legislation to create a $10 billion governor’s broadband development fund. The money would be used for broadband infrastructure development and help pay subsidies for people who can’t afford the service, among other uses.
Graham said he wants to include the provision in the next stimulus package to help during the upcoming fall. Money would go to existing services and expand current services in an emergency fashion during the pandemic.
South Carolina would receive $170 million through the proposal. The legislation calls on 30% of the money being used in Opportunity Zones, economically distressed areas where developers can receive tax incentives for new investments.
In the HEROES Act, the House approved COVID-19-relief and stimulus package not yet taken up the Senate, was a proposal by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, that calls for the Federal Communications Commission to fund shovel-ready, high-speed internet projects immediately, so consumers can access broadband within a year.
However, just spending money on minimum broadband service may not be enough. Lawmakers are calling for even higher speeds than the FCC minimum of 25 mbps.
Davis said he wants companies to put in connections to provide even faster speeds of 100 mbps or 150 mbps.
“We need to up that standard,” Davis said. “It’s not enough to simply check the box and say you have access to the internet if your system is totally getting overloaded and you’re constantly buffering, (and) you’re not able to effectively communicate in e-commerce.”