Liberty Fellows Working Together on Broadband Access
Jim Stritzinger is a member of the first Liberty Fellowship class in 2006. A self-described “techie”, his passion for engineering and technology runs deep.
“My dad had a computer store when I was growing up, so I was naturally in the tech world from day one,” Jim said. “Coming out of college, I was an electrical engineer, but I have always been fascinated with writing software.”
After selling his software company and moving to South Carolina in 2004, Jim’s interest shifted to internet connectivity, which he sees as a doorway to economic opportunity.
“The thing that keeps me up at night is the six-year-old at home without access to internet,” he said. “I can’t imagine a career ten years from now where digital skills are not required. If that child is not developing the necessary skills right now, they are already behind.”
To help define the gaps in connectivity, Jim developed an innovative method for mapping internet access using IBM Watson and internet speed test data from Seattle-based company Ookla. The maps defined for the first time ever the number of people and households in South Carolina that do not have access to the internet. They also show that access is particularly limited in rural areas due to the lack of infrastructure.
“Approximately 435,000 people in 193,000 households do not have adequate access to the internet in South Carolina,” Jim said. “The infrastructure is very expensive. It costs about $40,000 per mile to build fiber-optic cable. When you have the economics to build to places that there aren’t many homes, that’s the challenge.”
The Power of Network
At the 2018 Resnick Aspen Action Forum, Jim pledged to bring 50,000 South Carolinians high-speed internet access by the year 2023. The Liberty Fellowship network was a natural starting point to find others interested in the issue. Jim found that broadband access intersected with many other Fellows’ work and was able to use those connections for outreach to elected officials, county administrators, school superintendents, and those working in health care.
“When it comes to broadband, we have so much more work to do to connect people in rural and disadvantaged communities. Connectivity means opportunity – in education, to jobs, and to better healthcare that is available in a time and in a format that’s accessible and convenient for patients. We generally have this kind of access in well-off communities – it’s the rural areas that need our help,” said vice president for policy and finance at the South Carolina Hospital Association Christian Soura (Liberty Fellow ‘16).
Armed with Jim’s maps to define proposed service areas, several counties were able to apply for and receive funding for high-speed broadband infrastructure from the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program. The most recent funding awarded in South Carolina was in Kershaw County where Jim collaborated with Sen. Vincent Sheheen (Liberty Fellow ‘08) and Rep. Laurie Funderburk (Liberty Fellow ‘08).
“Having Jim really reach out to us and say there was this opportunity, that he was deeply involved, it just showed the power of the Liberty network. He felt comfortable calling us, we felt comfortable working with him. It was easy for us to vouch for him in our local community,” Vincent said.
Kershaw County received $9.1 million for infrastructure that will create or improve e-Connectivity for 6,251 homes, 24 farms, 15 businesses, four critical community facilities, three educational facilities and a health care center.
“I mean this is truly monumental for our community. And we are so grateful to Jim for reaching out to us,” said Laurie.
TruVista, the service provider installing the network, lauded those involved in the grant application process for their leadership at a press conference in February 2020.
“If you think about this, this is how public, private partnerships should work. Both at the high level and particularly on the ground level across political lines across all the demographics and everything else, we are all in this to make it work for all Americans, including those that live in nonurban areas,” said Brian Singleton, CEO of TruVista.
There are currently eight pending ReConnect applications from South Carolina counties. Communities are also finding other ways to expand broadband infrastructure. Jim is currently working with Richland County Council to expand infrastructure in the more rural, southeastern part of the county where approximately 10,300 residents do not have broadband access.
In this case, it was a matter of instituting “Dig Once” - the national best practice of coordination between public and private excavators with local government on the installation of extra fiber or conduit whenever ground will be broken in the public right-of-way. After a presentation from Jim, Richland County Council approved $85,000 from the county’s general fund budget to lay two miles of conduit while excavating for an ongoing expansion of the county water and sewer system.
Mission Critical: Internet Access in the COVID-19 ‘New Normal’
Statewide interest in internet access intensified with the COVID-19 pandemic as people work from home, home-school their children, access their doctors and health screenings remotely, and purchase essential goods and services online. Jim’s maps are being heavily relied upon as South Carolina adapts to a new, and a more digital, way of life. They were integrated in the State Department of Education’s technology plan. They were also referenced by Governor McMaster’s AccelerateSC Task Force that recommended $100,250,000 of the $1.9 billion the state received from the CARES Act go towards creating a statewide broadband plan, improving broadband infrastructure and creating more hot spots.
On June 25, Governor McMaster signed the CARES Act Appropriation from the General Assembly. Out of $1.9 billion in federal funding available, the appropriation allocates $668 million in spending. $50 million will be used for internet broadband mapping and planning, infrastructure and mobile hot spots.
With the increased momentum on this issue, South Carolina is poised to become more connected than ever. But, the installation of infrastructure takes time, and there are still gaps to be closed. Jim remains focused on short- and long-term solutions. Through his collaboration with Fellows, he is well over halfway to his goal of bringing broadband to 50,000 South Carolinians.
“When you drive a stake in the ground and decide to make South Carolina your home, you settle in and you get the job done,” Jim said. “I think about it every day. I want equality. I want everyone to have access to internet.”