While some portions of Orangeburg County will receive broadband access, a new state law could make additional expansion problematic and costly.
The new law requires government-owned telecommunications service providers to meet the same local, state and federal regulations as private providers, with some exceptions.
Municipal Association of South Carolina Deputy Executive Director Reba Campbell said in an email the new law technically allows public entities to provide broadband.
“The way it is written it effectively keeps them from providing the service,” Campbell said. “This is why we fought this as being bad long-term public policy. There will be rural areas of the state the commercial providers may not find profitable to serve for a long time.
“This new law makes it very difficult for a local government to commit to a long-range plan if there is a possibility a commercial provider could later come in and force a change in their business model.”
In September 2010, Orangeburg County received more than $18 million in federal stimulus funding to construct a fiber optic broadband Internet network. The 278-square-mile project includes areas around Branchville, Bowman and Rowesville.
An exception in the law allows Orangeburg County to proceed with its broadband project.
Also, an amendment by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, mandated the legislature receive a report every five years examining the law’s effect on residential and business consumers.
“I was against the whole bill,” Hutto said. “Orangeburg received the grant to do the broadband and this bill on its face undermined that. This pitted urban versus rural areas.
“Not all people had telephone or electricity when they were first introduced. Broadband is a new form of utility that will become an essential component. It is now part of how everything is done.”
A number of private telecommunications companies supported the law. AT&T South Carolina spokesman Clifton Metcalf said it allows local governments to provide broadband services “without restriction” in unserved areas.
“We constantly work with local governments and economic development groups to identify needs and assure that services are in place to help attract jobs and stimulate growth,” Metcalf said. “To our knowledge, no economic development opportunity has been missed due to a lack of advanced communications services, including high-speed Internet.”
The law defines an “unserved area” as any 2010 Census block in which at least 90 percent of households have either no access to broadband service or service only from a satellite provider.
Broadband was defined in the law as transmissions of not less than 190 kilobits per second. By comparison, the Federal Communications Commission currently defines broadband as 4 megabits download and 1 megabit upload per second.
Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said more areas would have been available for future service if the higher broadband definition had been used. Under the law, Young noted about 40 percent of the county is still available for expansion of the broadband project.
“To target unserved areas in the county, we will work with Connect South Carolina to conduct broadband coverage surveys,” Young said. “That will affect us because part of this grant means determining which areas would be best to serve.
“If AT&T really wanted a level playing field as it contended, it should also have to provide garbage, animal control and EMS services, and respond to (South Carolina Freedom of Information Act) requests.”
Construction on the current broadband project continues in the Cattle Creek and Bowman areas. A phone number has been established for those with questions or complaints about the Orangeburg County broadband project: 803-997-0156.
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