State awards $30 million for internet

More Than 1,000 Fairfield Homes to Receive Internet in Next 18 Months

WINNSBORO – Act 175 aimed to plug Internet coverage gaps in South Carolina’s rural areas, including Fairfield County.

While full coverage remains elusive a year later, the state has taken strides toward expanding and enhancing service, according to state officials.

On Monday night, representatives from the state’s Office of Regulatory Staff outlined ways the agency has worked to improve online access, as well as other forms of communication.

Internet Progress

“There’s a lot of work that’s going to be happening in Fairfield County over the next 18 months,” said Jim Stritzinger, director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff’s broadband office” We hope your residents will be happy with that.”

Gov. Henry McMaster signed Act 175 into law in October 2020. Part of the act included funding to provide grants to applicants to help subsidize qualifying broadband projects.

But the law also has limitations. It merely says that the state or electric cooperative may take steps to enhance broadband service, but doesn’t mandate it.

“This act does not convey or confer any implied or express grant of authority to an investor-owned electric utility to provide broadband facilities or broadband services,” the act states.

In spite of the disclaimer, progress has been made.

Stritzinger said about 3,000 people and a little more than 2,000 homes currently lack broadband service in Fairfield County.

By October 2022, he anticipates those figures will fall to about 1,600 residents and 864 homes, largely due to $30 million in grants awarded in July.

The ORS initiative operates in tandem with the S.C. Department in grants awarded in July.

The ORS initiative operates in tandem with the S.C. Department of Commerce. While expanding broadband to ordinary residents is the primary goal, economic development is another incentive.

“As a council member, you would want to target those areas to make sure you get them connected as rapidly as possible,” Stritzinger said.

Federal grants will further close the internet connectivity gap.

$3M USDA Grant

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded $3 million to Fairfield County to enhance broadband service, which is in addition to the state investment.

“We’re nowhere close to done in Fairfield County,” Stritzinger said. “The mission is … for all your residents to have service. We’re off to a really good start.”

ORS representatives also talked about the agency’s equipment distribution program. The program provides no cost phone services for South Carolina residents facing speech or hearing challenges.

With COVID-19 limiting human interaction, the program’s benefits become quite clear, said Casi Sims, a program coordinator with ORS.

“During the pandemic, communication is very important, especially over the phone,” Sims said. “People are shut in their homes and it affects their quality of life.”

Options include phones that amplify audio, phones with captioning (which converts audio to text), or an iPad.

Sims said the devices are valuable educational tools, noting school speech pathologists utilize the devices.

“The good thing about getting an iPad from our program is the student doesn’t have to turn it in at the end of the school year,” she said. “They can keep it and are progressing; they are not regressing over the summer.”

Settling Hospital Debt

In other business, after a lengthy executive session, the council voted to accept an offer from Fairfield Memorial Hospital to settle debts with the county. Of the $1.256 million the hospital owes the county, the board offered to pay the county $628,000.

Council members voted 5-1 to approve, with Councilman Neil Robinson opposing. Councilman Mikel Trapp was absent.

As early as April, some council members had hoped to strike a deal with the hospital board to settle debts for as much as $750,000.

Before the vote, Council Chairman Moses Bell asked how much patient debt it forgave.

Tim Mitchell, chief financial officer with the hospital, told council members that when the hospital was operating, it “wrote off $7 million dollars a year in patient debt.”

Council Likely Violated FOIA

The council also added a previously unpublished executive session item to the agenda for the purpose of receiving legal advice in the county’s ongoing lawsuit against Alliance Consulting Engineers, Wiley Easton Construction Company, and Employers Mutual Casualty Company.

Filed in February 2020, the suit relates to work performed at the Fairfield Commerce Center.

County attorney Charles Boykin asked to add the discussion item after saying he received new information about the case earlier in the day at 3:15 p.m.

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said the executive session likely violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Bender said last minute agenda additions, including executive session items, are impermissible unless the council first votes to amend the agenda to include the agenda item by a supermajority vote which, on the seven-member Fairfield council, would be five votes.

Only after that’s done can public bodies then vote to enter executive session to discuss the item that’s added, Bender said.

No action was taken on the lawsuit discussion.

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