CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Companies working to install fiber to give more South Carolinians broadband internet access face a deadline this week some may not be able to meet.
It’s been nine months since many were sent home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents were working from home. Students started doing their classes virtually. At this point, people are essentially used to our new normal but for tens of thousands of South Carolinians, the lack of access to highspeed broadband internet is a major stumbling block.
Shemika Holmes lives in a rural part of Georgetown County and, since the pandemic, her four kids have been attending classes from the comfort of their own rooms. But, there’s a problem they face every month.
“We have satellite internet available to us but it’s not consistent,” Holmes says.
She says satellite internet is the only thing available to them because of where they live. But, not only is it expensive, there’s only so much data they’re allotted.
“With the kids going to school online it’s not consistent with them because sometimes if it rains, they’re not able to get on. If we don’t have any gigabytes left, they’re not able to get on.”
And she says it’s frustrating.
“My kids are getting marked absent all the time,” Holmes says. “I actually got a letter in the mail saying that my daughter had missed too many days from school. She’s been going to school. But if the internet is not connected when she’s trying to get on, and they call roll, she gets marked absent because she’s trying to log on to the school site.”
Holmes explains their data allotment only lasts them about two weeks out of the month.
Unfortunately, Holmes’ story is one of thousands we’ve been hearing since the pandemic started. According to state officials, there are more than 108,000 homes and businesses that do not have access to broadband internet.
“We would not accept or expect to find a neighborhood with only half the people getting electric service or only half the people having water sewer service,” Nanette Edwards, the Executive Director of the Office of Regulatory Staff, says. “So now, with where we are with broadband and the needs that we have with telehealth, working remotely and distance learning, people are looking at broadband as a necessity.”
Since CARES Act Funding was made available, those at the ORS have been working around the clock with broadband companies to get fiber laid.
Edwards says the federal funding has a deadline of Dec. 30. So, all of the broadband infrastructure projects have to be done by then.
Between the 14 companies that stepped up, they were expected to get broadband internet to about 28,000 homes. But, some of the companies might not be able to finish on time.
“There are issues with supply of fiber,” Edwards says. “We all know that construction projects can run into last-minute issues. I don’t have a firm figure yet. But I would guesstimate as much as $7 million of the $26.4 million may not get completed.”
For the companies that do complete their projects by the 30th, 50 percent of the cost will be covered by the CARES Act Funding. For the companies that don’t, they are no longer eligible for the funding and the total cost of the project comes out of their pockets.
One company that was able to finish is Home Telecom which laid fiber in rural Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
“Broadband is still seen as a luxury and not a necessity and that’s the kind of mindset we have to get over,” Home Telecom’s CEO William Helmly says. “I think that’s what COVID has done for us is let us realize that now it’s not really a luxury it’s something that’s needed to survive.”
That same thought process has been what thousands of people have been trying to get across.
“With the situation going on with the pandemic, and the children having to stay home to do the internet, that should be something that should be worked into a budget to allow us, the people who are suffering with the same issue, to allow us to have internet,” Holmes says.
We are one step closer to the end goal. The FCC awarded the state of South Carolina $121 million in rural broadband funding in the last several weeks.