With $50 million in federal funding, S.C. officials have been moving quickly to provide students with internet service before classes resume and to expand high-speed service to unserved areas. So far, they’ve signed up 57,000 student households for free hot spot service through Dec. 31 at a cost of about $8 million.
That’s remarkable progress, considering that the state’s funding plan for the first three months of this year, which authorized the spending, was just signed into law June 25.
On Tuesday, Nanette Edwards of the Office of Regulatory Staff told a legislative panel she expected about 150,000 Wi-Fi hot spots to be distributed by mid-fall and to still have about $4 million left over from the $20 million budgeted for student access. That money might be needed for filling gaps that arise before the end of 2020, the federal deadline for spending the money.
The hot spot service is limited to student households with incomes of no more than 250% of the federal poverty level. But students in those households qualify whether enrolled in a public or private school, a state university, community college or technical school. Some households will be supplied with wired internet service instead.
The pandemic has made reliable high-speed internet service essential for virtual schooling. The mobile hot spots will provide a short-term fix. But importantly, most of the federal funding, which the state received via the CARES Act, will help build out networks to provide permanent internet service to poor, rural parts of the state.
A mapping project by the Office of Regulatory Staff identified 556 areas, each 36 square miles, where high-speed internet service is spotty or nonexistent; 150 of those areas have been designated high-priority because of lack of access and high poverty rates. Regulatory Staff is now soliciting bids from internet providers to bring service, at least as fast as 25 mbps, to those unserved and underserved areas.
The pandemic has brought into stark relief the modern-day necessity of high-speed internet service. Students, people working from home and those who need access to virtual medical appointments all need service capable of carrying real-time video as much as they need electricity. Internet service is also integral to commerce and governmental functions.
Spending federal tax dollars to expand internet service makes economic sense, just as it did to electrify rural America on the heels of the Great Depression. It will create jobs directly and increase opportunities for everyone from farmers to mom-and-pop startups.
The CARES Act funding represents a great leap forward, and counties have been tapping U.S. Agriculture Department grants and working with electrical co-ops to expand high-speed service.
Meanwhile, the state could get another big boost if Congress approves in its next pandemic relief package the legislation from U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott to provide up to $170 million — $10 billion nationwide — to bring high-speed connections to even more South Carolinians. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s high-speed internet plan, which goes even further, is already included in the House-passed stimulus package, although the House and Senate remain far from an agreement.
The ORS has done a laudable job in a short time. Still, about 650,000 South Carolinians are stuck in the digital hinterlands. The Legislature shouldn’t consider the job done until a high-speed connection is available to all South Carolinians. The future of the state’s economy and its educational systems depend on it, not just virtually but in reality.
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