Program could use former SCETV towers to bring internet to rural areas

66.2 percent of Americans living in rural and Tribal areas — as compared to 2.1 percent of Americans living in urban areas — still lack access to fixed 25/3 broadband.

July 1, 2018

When Annie Brown wanted to check job postings and social media recently, she headed to the St. Stephen Library to access the internet on one of their computers.

“I don’t have internet where I’m staying,” she said. “So I have to come here or another library.”

Brown is one of about half a million South Carolinians — one in 10 — without access to the internet in their homes, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“Our access is really poor in certain parts of the state,” said Jim Stritzinger, formerly director of Connect South Carolina, a Columbia-based group that studies internet access across the state. He is now the director of the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics at the University of South Carolina.

But Stritzinger thinks he may have found a viable solution to bring access to rural Berkeley and other areas of the state.

Internet access, according to the FCC, means a 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 Mbps upload for fixed — not mobile — services.

In most urban areas, like Charleston, speeds of 100 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload are common.

But in rural areas, those speeds are virtually nonexistent. More than 267,000 people in Stritzinger’s study region, which includes all of South Carolina plus Augusta, Charlotte and Wilmington, don’t have access to even a basic 10 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload, he said.

“That’s really significant,” he said. “Less than 10 Mbps, in today’s terms, is no connectivity.”

Such slow speeds hinder the user from watching videos, playing games and more.

The 2018 Broadband Deployment Report by the FCC found that as of year-end 2016, 92.3 percent of all Americans have access to fixed broadband at the 25/3 speeds.

Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn found that unacceptable.

“A whopping 66.2 percent of Americans living in rural and Tribal areas — as compared to 2.1 percent of Americans living in urban areas — still lack access to fixed 25/3 broadband,” she said in her dissenting opinion of the report. “There are tens of millions of our fellow citizens who lack access to broadband, putting them at a severe disadvantage when it comes to robust opportunities in education, healthcare, government services, and civic participation.”

To help the issue, Google launched its Rolling Study Hall initiative in Berkeley County in March 2017. The school district has 28 school buses equipped with Wi-Fi so students at Cross Elementary, Cross High, J.K. Gourdin Elementary, St. Stephen Elementary, St. Stephen Middle and Timberland High can do homework while they ride.

The district has also pursued a goal of supplying every student county-wide with a mobile electronic device, in many cases Google Chromebooks.

“One of the things that we’ve seen is that Berkeley County School District is doing a one-to-one, so children get these devices,” said Berkeley County Library Director Gene Brunson. “They have Wi-Fi at school but once they leave school, they may not have it at home, so where do they get their Wi-Fi from? That’s where we come in.”

“We have several programs that we do for our customers, not only for the rural areas but also for those customers who may not be able to afford an extra bill,” he said. “In rural areas, where internet connectivity is an issue, these services and resources are very valuable.”

In addition to computers with internet access at the library, thanks to a grant from Google SC, Berkeley County Library System has “BCLS Connects,” which lets customers check out a Chromebook, a Wi-Fi unit or a kit with both for two weeks. The library also loans tablets for both children and adults.

In the rural areas, where it can be difficult to get the download speeds to stream movies, the libraries offer the GoChip Beam, a movie and TV hotspot.

And the Mobile Library, also known as the bookmobile, has Wi-Fi access available during community visits and events.

“We’re there for an hour and a half or two to give those customers an opportunity to use the internet there, as well,” Brunson said.

Stritzinger’s office is working in partnership with SCETV and IBM on a plan that would mount equipment on old radio towers, water towers and fire towers.

Decades ago, SCETV built about 700 point-to-point microwave towers throughout the state to bring educational programming to schools.

These towers, 80 to 100 feet tall with microwave dishes on top, now sit idle.

“They are just sitting there collecting dust, literally,” Stritzinger said. “Microwave is no longer needed because the state has paid for fiber optics to be brought into all of the schools now.”

In some cases, the towers need only to be activated. In other cases, they need to be moved to another location, a job that can be completed in a day. Their signals can reach a radius of 5 miles.

“They are galvanized and have been up through multiple hurricanes,” Stritzinger said. “The only maintenance required is to hit them with a wire brush. They’re proven.”

New towers would cost up to $50,000 a piece, he said.

“To purchase them new wouldn’t even be in the cards,” he said. “But where this is just so awesome is the fact that the state already owns all of these assets. It’s a very cost-effective solution.”

In addition, the program seeks to put the towers into areas where the FCC has already poured millions of dollars from its Connect America Fund, which was created to expand high-speed internet connections. That includes some rural areas of the Lowcountry.

The project is poised to kick off as a pilot in Aiken County.

“We think there’s a good possibility to move 20 this calendar year,” Stritzinger said. “I think we’re on our way to creating a national model on how to do this.”