House aims to bring internet to rural areas

WINNSBORO – Every campaign year, a popular promise of candidates running for office in Fairfield County is to bring internet to the rural. But, as the year 2020 approaches, pockets of slow or dead internet zones still exist throughout the County.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers hopes to change that.

Introduced by 14 House Democrats and Republicans, House Bill 3780 proposes creating the “Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology,” or GREAT, program to facilitate expanding broadband Internet service into rural areas of the state.

House members passed the bill in a 112-0 vote on April 3. The Senate has passed first reading on the legislation, and it has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the General Assembly website.

It was not immediately clear as of press time when the Senate might tackle second reading. Rep. Annie McDaniel, D-Winnsboro hopes it’s soon.

“I know for Fairfield County it will make a huge difference,” McDaniel said. “I support it 100 percent.”

McDaniel said she’s especially encouraged by the bipartisan support. She said expanding high-speed Internet access countywide carries a multitude of benefits, from students trying to complete schoolwork to conducting routine business transactions.

“When you look at McCrorey Liston School of Technology, they definitely need to have Internet service,” she said. “I’ve talked to many people in that area who’ve said the Internet doesn’t serve them really well.

“I’m excited that it’s something that we can work on together,” McDaniel continued. “I am exceptionally happy when I see that the Republicans and Democrats found a bill they can work together on.”

The latest version of H.3780 proposes creating a special revenue fund in the S.C. Rural Infrastructure Authority.

From this fund, grants can be awarded to applicants to subsidize qualifying broadband projects. Funding would be determined by the General Assembly, though the bill doesn’t specify how much would be funded, or from what funding source.

H.3780 also proposes creating a points system to determine recipient eligibility.

The scoring system would give weight to distressed counties, which according to FCC data have higher numbers of unserved residents when it comes to Internet service.

Some aspects of H.3780 are similar to a farmer’s aid bill presently stalled in Congress, which also seeks to enhance Broadband service in remote rural areas.

In July 2018, the U.S. House passed H.R. 4881, also known the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018, which requires the FCC to establish at task force responsible for “identifying and measuring current gaps in the availability of broadband Internet access service on agricultural land.”

The task force would also be charged with “achieving reliable capabilities” on 95 percent of agricultural land in the U.S. by 2025, according to the bill.

No further action has been taken on the bill since the House passed it last summer, according to the U.S. Congress website.

Boosting Internet service could generate important economic benefits as well.

A provision within the bill gives the authority leeway to determine if broadband expansion “will benefit a potential economic development project relevant to the proposed area outlined in the eligible project.”

While Fairfield County has placed great emphasis on enhancing water and sewer services, expanding broadband is also important to industries that desire ready-made infrastructure, said Fairfield County Administrator Jason Taylor.

“Infrastructure, whether it’s water and sewer or soft infrastructure, like Internet, is critical,” he said. “It’s another tool to help market Fairfield County.”

Better broadband service also improves public safety, Taylor added.

“If you don’t have service, you can’t get 911 there or fire trucks there as quickly,” he said. “It’s wonderful from every angle.”