COLUMBIA – Congressman Jim Clyburn said he has become highly passionate about taking broadband to rural South Carolina.
“I am going to be as strong of an advocate for broadband being a big part of the next infrastructure package as I have ever been for anything in my life because I am convinced that that’s going to be the key to whether or not we have any real opportunities open to people in rural America,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn held a two-hour meeting with Orangeburg County officials, school superintendents and others in Holly Hill on Thursday to discuss the broadband issues that plague rural Orangeburg, Bamberg and other counties. He later discussed the issues with members of the state’s press.
According to Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young, roughly 9,000 people in the county either have no internet access or slow access.
The Canaan, Four Holes, Eutawville, North, Norway and Holly Hilly areas are some examples of places without broadband access currently, according to Young.
Young noted that broadband has been put into critical facilities like hospitals, fire stations and county buildings, making them “hot spots” that help neighboring communities tap into broadband.
According to Clyburn and Young, there are federal dollars to provide funding for broadband.
Young said the county will seek a $30 million grant to expand broadband in the county. The county would have to match about $8 million.
“It will allow us to move forward and serve more citizens,” Young said. “We are piecing through the components to apply for it.”
Young estimates an additional 1,100 homes could be added to broadband with the federal money and local match. It will take about a year before construction could begin if the county receives the grant.
In the interim, the county is doing what it can with about $2.5 million set aside for broadband in its budget.
Young explained that when the county did the first broadband project, it spent about $16 million of the $18 million set aside, leaving about $2.5 million left over. The $16 million was matched with $4.5 million, according to Young.
“We left that money in the broadband pot for future expansion,” Young said. There is also some money set aside for broadband in the fourth round of the 1 percent capital projects sales tax.
Clyburn detailed how broadband is intertwined with education and health care, including a conversation he had with Congressman Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.
Bishop shared with him that a high school football team in his district goes to a McDonald's to get Wi-Fi because it is the only hotspot in town. They sit on the bus and do their homework.
“Congress needs to do something about this,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn said it seems that the state is focusing on whatever is minimally adequate for education, which is not a good standard.
“We’re not going to be able to get an adequate education to our children if you don’t have broadband,” he stated.
“Education has become so technologically based,” Young said. “In a lot of cases, they don’t give out books anymore. They use downloads and apps and they send grades, messages through the internet.”
Young said without broadband, children cannot do their work because many assignments require internet access to complete.
Clyburn also detailed the need for broadband to expand telehealth.
“We’re not going to be able to deliver health care to citizens throughout rural areas without broadband,” he said. “We’re trying to expand community health centers, and none of this is going to work if we don’t have broadband.”
Clyburn said he plans to discuss broadband issues with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“On yesterday I received a call from the speaker who told me we needed to get together Monday night to put together a comprehensive, big infrastructure bill,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn said the conversation surrounding infrastructure is dominated by roads and bridges.
Broadband should be included in that conversation, he said.
Clyburn learned that the South Carolina Office of Rural Health, the South Carolina Hospital Association and Palmetto Care Connections are working together to create a map of broadband in the state.
“Those three groups have come together and they have financed the mapping of the entire state of South Carolina, which I think will be completed by the end of June,” he said.
“They think at this point they will know what needs to be served,” he said.
Clyburn said it is critical that the map is a “good” map.
“The mapping is flawed if they are using the mapping that the FCC uses,” he said.
The current mapping done by the FCC uses census tracts, according to Clyburn.
“If in a census tract one household has internet, that gets considered as the entire census tract being covered. That’s a tremendous flaw in the system,” Clyburn noted.
Clyburn has already started exploring solutions to the broadband issue. One that has been discussed is relocating S.C. Educational Television towers to expand coverage.
Clyburn also referenced the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service fund, saying “There’s $600 million available to states for this purpose.”
“I am hopeful that we can access these dollars in such a way that we will be able to do what’s necessary for the entire state of South Carolina, and I’m going to be focusing on Orangeburg and Bamberg counties as two counties that we can hopefully use as a model for getting this done,” he said.
Clyburn said if he can’t find money in the legislature, then “I’ll ask my campaign committee raise it.”
“I’m going to be meeting with everybody I can possibly meet with,” he said.
Clyburn said he instructed his team to set up a meeting with AT&T CEO Randall Stevenson.
“I’m going to find some creative ways to get this done because there’s something wrong with these kids in rural communities being left behind,” Clyburn said.