How South Carolina plans to invest money from federal government on broadband expansion

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Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 6:27 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 18, 2022 at 6:49 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The office tasked with broadband expansion and investment in South Carolina estimates it will cost more than $600 million at this point to ensure everyone in the state is connected to the internet.

While the director of South Carolina’s Broadband Office added that figure changes frequently, the state also has an unprecedented amount of money coming in to help with that expansion from the federal government.

State lawmakers agreed earlier this year to set aside $400 million of the nearly $2.5 billion allocated to South Carolina from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed into law last year.

“We’ve got historic investment in broadband and in water and sewer and in roads, at the same time, so if we work together, and the state agencies are really doing that — I’m proud to share with y’all that we’re really working together — that we’re going to get some extraordinary results, no doubt,” SC Broadband Office Director Jim Stritzinger said at an Education Oversight Committee meeting last week.

As of September 2021, the most recent data available, more than 427,000 South Carolinians had little to no internet access at home, representing about 8.3% of the state’s population. That included nearly 50,000 of the state’s K-12 students in public schools.

Stritzinger told the EOC that the office plans to spend the broadband portion of the money in four tranches, instead of all at once, starting as soon as the General Assembly gives it the money and through the end of 2024. Then at six-month intervals, they will map updated connectivity to know where to spend next.

The work continues broadband expansion the state already had underway, especially thanks to an earlier influx of money from the federal government.

“CARES Act funding from June of 2020 was a total of $50 million,” Stritzinger said. “We got an additional $10 million from the General Assembly in July of last year to finish up CARES projects that couldn’t be handled, and then we got an additional $30 million from the South Carolina Department of Commerce to go toward broadband.”

By the end of this year, the Broadband Office estimates about 364,000 South Carolinians will still lack broadband at home, about 7.1% of the state’s population.

South Carolina Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn, the U.S. House Majority Whip, has been a major proponent of broadband expansion and is optimistic about the state’s ability to take care of everyone.

“I am very, very proud of what South Carolina has done with that. The governor and I have talked about it often, the other entities in the state. It demonstrates what visionary leadership can do,” Clyburn told reporters Monday in Columbia. “… South Carolina, I think, is going to build out 100% residential and businesses within the next four to five years, and that’s something to be proud of.”

Stritzinger said his office is working with the South Carolina Department of Education to map the homes of students without internet access, data it can use to prioritize where to spend.

“I wake up every day thinking about our six-year-olds that don’t have internet at home and the impact we’re going to have on them if we don’t get this right and quickly,” he said. “We’re going to have six-year-olds that turn into 16-year-olds that are arguably unemployable. They won’t have the digital skills they need to function in the economy.”

State lawmakers have until the end of 2024 to decide how to spend South Carolina’s entire allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act and until the end of 2026 to actually spend it all.

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