Tim Bailey’s new modern house in the Pauline community in remote Spartanburg County will have many of the comforts of home — except for an internet connection, a service many South Carolinians take for granted.

Bailey, a contractor based in Union, and his wife, Anne, are planning to move into their new home in about two weeks. Without internet service, however, the heating and air conditioning unit, burglar alarm system, swimming pool system equipment and standby electric generator will not function as designed. He’ll even have to step outside to get a strong cell phone signal to send and receive an email.

Two months after Bailey began building the house in October 2021, he called an internet service provider. But he was told it couldn’t connect him to the system because his new house is outside their service area. On a clear day, he can see the distant mountains.

Frustrated, Bailey called his Pauline neighbor, S.C. Sen. Shane R. Martin, R-Spartanburg, to tell him something has to change. “The state and the [federal governments] are giving these providers a lot of taxpayers’ money, and we are getting left out,” he said.

Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., in a rare moment of Palmetto State bipartisanship, shared the podium during a recent press conference in Columbia to announce that as of March 2022, more than 100,000 additional customers, many in rural areas, have gained high-speed broadband access through state and federal government investments in broadband expansion.

Lots of people in Bailey’s situation

The expansion of service, however, won’t provide immediate help for Bailey and slightly more than 181,000 households across the state that have poor internet service or don’t have access to a connection because they are beyond the service provider’s reach, according to the S.C. Broadband Office.

“Our rural areas are loaded with talent, and it is vital to our future prosperity that our rural areas and everyone in our state has broadband access,” McMaster said in a statement. “Thanks to Congressman Clyburn, and our entire team, we are making great progress. The best is yet to come.”

Clyburn added, “I want to thank the governor for doing something that a lot of people with less vision did not do. Through the State Broadband office and its leadership, South Carolina has created a model that other states are now following. When it comes to education, health, or anything else — broadband will make it all more accessible and affordable.”

The expanded service area cost nearly $480 million in federal and state funds. So far, the state has awarded more than $55 million in grants to internet service providers to make it financially feasible to run costly lines to more homes and businesses. Another $400 million will be awarded in the coming year, beginning with $180 million by December. At a minimum, $100 million will be awarded to the state through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Beginning in 2019, the state also received nearly $40 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect Program.

The S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) estimates it will cost $600 million to serve every unserved household. Fortunately, the money’s already available.  Sources include $400 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, $100 million from the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Program and at least $100 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is expected to be available in 2024.

Charleston falls short on grant funding

In the Lowcountry, as of June 6, 2022, ORS has awarded $6.2 million in grants to service providers in Berkeley County and $1.5 million in Dorchester County to bring service to 2,227 and 533 customers, respectively. No grant funds were awarded, however, to service providers in Charleston County. Because of demographic rankings based on a variety of factors, Charleston County didn’t qualify for the latest round of grant funding, said Jim Stritzinger, director of the S.C. Broadband Office.

Many rural residents have internet access at work, school or home, “but that is not the same as having [high speed] internet connectivity in your house,” he said. “This is what the [pandemic] really laid bare for all of us,” he said. “When the pandemic hit it shined a big bright light on the digital divide.” The S.C. Broadband Office, created July 1, 2021, is within the ORS.

In the sparsely populated Pauline community of about 200 people, Bailey is about a quarter of a mile from an internet cable that runs along S.C. Highway 215. As a contractor, he volunteered to dig the trench and bury the cable to his house, but the service provider declined his offer.

To possibly solve Bailey’s connection problem, the ORS executive director Nanette S. Edwards suggested he try SpaceX Starlink technology. The office has partnered with the S.C. Department of Education to pilot a program using Starlink for remote rural schools to evaluate the effectiveness of low Earth orbit satellites for reliable broadband service. Bailey said he has signed up and ORS will try to expedite a connection for him. It is also investigating other solutions, he said.  “If it wasn’t for Ms. Edwards’ office, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” he added. 

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.