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Broadband internet reaching more homes; Orangeburg County’s service is expanding, but some still wait
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Broadband internet reaching more homes; Orangeburg County’s service is expanding, but some still wait

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HOLLY HILL – High-speed internet is a luxury for some people.

For Hutto Market Street resident and home-based real estate agent Melissa Cook, it is a necessity.

"I can't function," Cook said. "I can't communicate with my office or my clients."

Cook and her husband, Brian, currently use a satellite internet service, but she says the service is not reliable and is offline when it rains and is overcast.

And while she has the best package offered by her internet provider, she can only download a limited amount of data. When she exceeds the amount, she is no longer online.

"I run through it pretty quickly," Cook said. "We have multiple Zoom meetings a month."

Cook says not only does she have limited amount of data, but service speeds are slow.

"We have a multimillion dollar business that we would like to run from home in Orangeburg County but cannot because of the internet," she said.

Orangeburg County is currently placing broadband on Hutto Market Street. The only problem is it that it is about 1.25 miles from her home.

"We would like to receive the same internet service as our neighbors 2,200 yards away on Hutto Market Road," Cook said.

Orangeburg County Council Chairman Johnnie Wright, whose district includes the Holly Hill area, said the county is aware of the challenges.

"I empathize with the folks there," he said. Wright has family members who live in the area who don't even have dial up.

"We are working on it," Wright said. "We are doing all we can."

Wright says the county is constantly seeking grants to expand broadband and it is his understanding that Hutto Market Street is next in line to receive grant funding to extend the lines.

But he says things like this take time.

"It is not going to happen overnight," Wright said, noting there are a number of challenges when it comes to rural broadband.

One is the fact that every time the county receives a grant, there is a required match.

"That throws an ax into the budget," he said.

He says the county also has to deal with regulations governing broadband services.

"It is a rural county and it is complicated," Wright said.

The county’s current broadband project will take service to Harriet Hutto, who lives on Old State Road a little past Interstate 95.

"I am excited about it coming by here and that I will be able to hook up to it" Hutto said.

Hutto uses her computer primarily for email and her internet service and speeds meet her needs. But she says improved speeds may open her eyes to opportunities she did not even know existed.

The current project will pass about 500 houses. It should be complete and publicly available by the end of the year, Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said.

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Broadband packages will start at about $39.95 a month. Speeds will run from 3 Mbps to 1 Gbps for both uploads and downloads.

Young said residents do not have to pay for the infrastructure, but would be responsible for up-front installation and monthly fees.

The total cost of the project is $650,000, with a grant of about $300,000 from the Office of Regulatory Services and a match from the county. The match will come out of the county's economic development fund within the county's general fund.

Ashlee and Richard Hutto live about a half a mile up the road from the current project. They also want broadband and would willing to share the cost of having the lines extended.

"We really need the internet,” Ashlee Hutto said.

Currently, Hutto and her husband have use an internet hot spot.

"It is very slow," said Richard Hutto, a farmer.

Ashlee Hutto says she does a lot of work at home.

Also, she has to maintain her employee certification, but says all certifications are now being done virtually because of COVID.

"Mine will actually lapse because I can't attend the meetings virtually," she said. "There is not another option where I can go in-person and get it. I will have to wait until they start doing in-person classes again."

Ashlee Hutto said she thinks the pandemic has opened a lot of eyes on how important the internet is.

"Before I think it was more, ‘Oh you know people just want internet,’" she said. “Now people need it.”

Wright said the Huttos’ willingness to pay for the cost of the extension could help expedite the project by about nine months or a year.

"I am sure we will work with them to try to get that," Wright said.

Barry Hutto, who owns a farm business on Hutto Market Road, says the broadband lines stopped right before his office.

He is not sure if he will be able to tap into the line currently in place, but he sure would like to do so.

High-speed internet is crucial for farmers, he said.

"The way things are in the marketing and crops, it is so important to have reliable internet. I could not farm without it. You’ve got to have it to keep up with the markets and to see what is going on."

The project is part of the county's larger efforts to expand broadband over the years.

The county has already placed broadband into critical facilities such as the hospital, fire stations and county buildings, making them “hot spots” that help neighboring communities tap into broadband.

Broadband has also been taken to areas surrounding Rowesville, Cattle Creek, Canaan, Branchville, Bowman and Duncan Chapel.

The county also has money set aside in the fourth round of the capital projects sales tax to put broadband in place.

Young said, "Fiber runs are extremely expensive.” Any decisions to extend fiber optic lines would be up to Orangeburg County Council members because “district money is involved.”

A recent study by the South Carolina Office of Rural Health, the South Carolina Hospital Association and Palmetto Care Connections show where gaps in broadband service continue to exist.

According to the map, gaps remain in locations such as Canaan, Four Holes, Eutawville, North, Norway and Holly Hill.

The data indicate 38.6% of Orangeburg County residents do not have the minimum recommended internet speed as of 2019.

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