Fairfield seeks broadband expansion

FAIRFIELD COUNTY – With the announcement of $3.3 million in approved grant funding, Fairfield County is a step closer to its plan to extend broadband Internet service to rural residents.

The funding approval announced Aug. 26 by the South Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Program will help local communications provider TruVista extend access to households in the county that don’t currently have broadband. And because the money comes from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, it must be spent by the end of the year.

“They’re going to be connecting homes between now and Christmas,” said Jim Stritzinger, whose Columbia-based consulting company has been working with local leaders on their broadband efforts.

The $3.3 million for Fairfield is part of $26.7 million approved for broadband expansion statewide. In TruVista’s service area, it also includes $1.4 million for neighboring Chester County and is targeted for communities impacted by COVID-19.

It’s a helpful step in the effort as officials await word on a much larger grant that TruVista applied for (with the enthusiastic support of Fairfield County leaders) earlier this year through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which if approved would put more than $20 million toward new broadband infrastructure in the county over the next five years.

County officials began looking at the issue in earnest two years ago and were awarded a small grant for training to help them access broadband funding. But this year, during the pandemic, the disparity between areas that have broadband access and areas that don’t has taken center stage.

In the time of social distancing, those who lack broadband access – an estimated 193,000 people across the state – have faced difficulties in three areas needed to carry on life and the economy: education (online schooling), telehealth (online doctor visits), and telecommuting (online work).

“Households are becoming increasingly reliant on fast, reliable, and always-on internet connection for learning, work or to seek medical care and advice,” said Carla French, President and COO of TruVista, in an emailed statement.

“Between our partnership with the state of South Carolina and the potential of further USDA ReConnect grant money, we look forward to bringing broadband services to underserved areas in Fairfield and Chester counties.”

In addition to the planned expansion of infrastructure, TruVista has also been working with school districts to provide broadband connections to households with school-age children, according to the company.

The immediate concern with education is that, without a reliable connection to participate in online classes, rural students could quickly fall behind.

Broadband has become so essential in today’s world, Stritzinger compares it to electricity. The effort to expand rural broadband access he compares to the rural electrification effort of the 1930s, which likewise subsidized infrastructure with public funds to connect less populated areas.

The programs work, he said, by offsetting the higher cost of rural infrastructure enough for the remaining private investment to make sense within the broadband provider’s normal business calculations, making a company’s return on investment similar to that of building infrastructure in more densely populated places.

Beyond immediate needs, Fairfield County Economic Development Director Ty Davenport said broadband infrastructure will have a major impact on the county’s development future. And it’s critical for any rural community that seeks to be competitive in today’s economy.

“Internet service is foundational, just like water and sewer. If it’s not there, industry, business – whether it’s commercial or manufacturing – probably isn’t going to come,” Davenport said.

“[In addition to that], more and more you’re going to see people working away from the office or the plant or whatever their normal workplace is, and they’ve got to be connected. And if they can’t be connected, they’re not going to build or buy a home in a rural part of Fairfield County or any county.”

Stritzinger said the two grants together – the $3.3 million that was just approved and the larger grant applied for with USDA – will have a major impact on extending broadband access to Fairfield County’s rural communities in need.

“If the USDA grant comes through as well, the combination of the two of them will help solve Fairfield County’s internet vacuum, or most of it, which is extraordinary,” he said. “It’ll make a major impact – a life-changing impact on Fairfield County. No doubt about it.”