Before I offer you some good news, let me begin by saying that you all are absolutely right—many county areas do not have access to broadband and/or high speed internet service. According to South Carolina’s State Broadband Office, there are 11 areas in Anderson County that are designated as underserved “program areas”. These program areas were determined by the state through an evaluation of existing infrastructure, existing upload/download speed tiers, and density of underserved households. There are also several other areas besides those prioritized by the state where extremely low population densities have thus far precluded extension of broadband or fiber service.
NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS
Over the past months, we have been working with Abbeville-based WCTEL/WCFIBER on ways to extend their fiber infrastructure further into Anderson County. This partnership has already yielded some positive results, and we are very proud to share with the community that WCTEL has received a grant from the S.C. Broadband Office to provide fiber infrastructure to approximately 200 households in the Mount Bethel community.
“WCTEL is a member-owned cooperative whose mission is to provide affordable service in rural areas. The area served by this project was identified by the state as being a priority area under the terms of this specific grant program and that helped make it feasible for us to extend service to this community” said Russell Clark, WCTEL Director of Business Development. “Because of the relationship we had already established with Anderson County, we were able to access the resources we needed to prepare a competitive application. Many thanks to Senator Mike Gambrell, Representative Jay West, and County Councilman Ray Graham for their invaluable support.”
Work is well underway on the project and will be concluded no later than December 15 2020. The infrastructure installed during this project will serve to facilitate future extensions of service into neighboring areas. The county offers its deepest appreciation to WCTEL for their efforts and we look forward to more projects together in the future.
When we speak of broadband in general, it is important to know that Anderson County DOES NOT provide broadband service or infrastructure. State law prohibits us from being a retail service provider, and we do not have the capacity to be a wholesale provider. In addition to WCTEL, we been in contact with other regional broadband and fiber providers to try and encourage extension of services into underserved areas. The biggest hurdle we encounter is the cost to the service provider related to installing the necessary infrastructure. On a road with comparatively few residents, it will take a long time for a private sector internet provider to recoup their infrastructure investment.
Federal and state grants are available to providers in certain areas. These grants are intended to make up the excess costs related to infrastructure development in underserved areas, but in some cases even the grants don’t provide enough money to make the extension profitable for the provider.
So far we have discussed issues related to the economics of providing broadband infrastructure, but there is another matter which must be considered when evaluating our community’s access to the internet. As has been demonstrated by the pandemic, there are many households that are unable to afford monthly fees for broadband service. This lack of access serves as a barrier to many school-aged children who are trying to participate in remote learning. The state, our several local school districts, and other institutions have been working diligently to fill this gap with mobile “hot spots” and other measures, but the affordability issue is one that will require a comprehensive effort to overcome.
Speaking for the Anderson County government, I wish that issues related to broadband availability and affordability could be easily solved, but the issue is pretty complex with a lot of parties and money involved, so that tends to muddy the waters. Be assured we will continue to take advantage of any opportunities that arise which allow us to get broadband to all underserved areas and remove all barriers to access in our jurisdiction.
For more information about WCTEL/WCFIBER, please visit www.wcfiber.net.
For more state broadband information, please visit https://ors.sc.gov/broadband.