How the COVID-19 is magnifying South Carolina’s ‘digital divide’

Updated: May. 21, 2020 at 8:05 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - With many South Carolinians relying on the internet for work, schooling, and even getting medical help, some said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown South Carolina needs to bridge the digital divide.

Terri Stansfield is a sixth-grade teacher in Hampton County. Hampton is one of the more rural counties in the state. Stansfield said, when their schools had to transition to “distance learning” because of COVID-19, they knew some of their students would not be able to access the materials.

"It’s one of those underlying things we all know is there and it’s always an issue and we know it’s something as a society we need to improve," she said.

Hampton County isn't alone. Nearly every county in the state has a certain amount of population that do not have access to broadband internet.

Catherine Fanchette, the principal at Northside Elementary School in Colleton County, said they have had to be creative to connect with students and parents.

"We have students who may have devices but they don’t have the Wi-Fi capability to access things digitally," she said.

School districts and communities have put Wi-Fi hot-spots on school buses that drive to remote parts of counties.

Jason Dandridge, the CEO of Palmetto Rural Telephone Company, said access to the internet can also be an affordability problem. He added whenever schools were closed and people were forced to work from home, they began offering free installation and a few months of services free to help people out.

"We received a good bump in people requesting service,” Dandridge said. “Our overall bandwidth increased by 15% in our network."

These are all temporary solutions. Communities are working on finding permanent solutions. Dandridge said the most recent numbers he's seen show about 10% of South Carolinians do not have access to broadband.

"Those folks are generally located in the most expensive areas to serve. There’s a reason why companies haven’t gone there because it’s just not viable," he said.

That's why members of accelerateSC and lawmakers want to set aside about $100 million from the CARES Act money the state is receiving from the federal government to expand broadband access in the state.

“The money from the CARES Act will go a long way in helping us. It is a short term thing to get things started but I’m sure there’s going to be some long-term solution to get all that done,” South Carolina Telecommunications and Broadband Association Executive Director Nola Armstrong said.

The $100 million would be used to improve broadband infrastructure and create more statewide hot spots.

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