Charleston Co. is digital divide leader

When Mike Shealy drives the back roads of rural South Carolina, he smiles when he sees orange conduits sticking out of the ground. They are signals that new internet connections are spreading like weeds.

But while the percentage of households in rural areas without internet connections are among the highest in South Carolina, Charleston County has more actual households without broadband connections – almost 33,000 — than any other county in the state. The number, in fact, is more than several rural counties combined, according to U.S. Census data.

Shealy, who recently served as budget director for the S.C. Senate, often travels the state to meet with regional councils of governments to encourage elected leaders to support efforts to use state and federal government funds to bring high-speed broadband connections to underserved rural communities.

“Digital inclusion” is now a priority

The nation’s economy has changed so much that governments must assist in making “digital inclusion” possible for all of the estimated 2 million households in South Carolina, Shealy recently told the board of directors of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) meeting in North Charleston.

“We have reached the point that we have to provide this to everybody,” said Shealy, who works for the state Department of Administration as director of statewide leadership and special projects. “It is not an option anymore. It is the way we live, work and play.”

A statewide broadband needs survey is one of the first steps to access federal funding for internet expansion from the U.S. Department of Commerce, he said. The process also includes compiling comments from regional listening sessions on what citizens want from the technology.

He encouraged the COG’s members to take the survey and share it with their constituents before an August deadline.

“What we are doing is compiling all of this information that we will then present to the National Information and Technology Administration that is part of the Department of Commerce,” he said. Once the surveys and a planning process are done “then we will get the keys to unlock grants,” he said. Shealy works in collaboration with the S.C. Broadband Office.

300,000+ S.C. households lack internet connections

It’s estimated that more than 363,000 households in South Carolina lack internet connections, according to U.S Census data for 2016 to 2020. South Carolina is expected to spend $750 million over four years to connect the entire state, Shealy said.

The money is to be used to subsidize the work of some 20 internet service providers that are laying a web of fiber optic cable to homes, libraries and technical colleges. Shealy said it is also important to provide digital training services to recently released prisoners  so they can seek and gain employment. Money is also available to help low-income residents afford an internet service, obtain a device such as a laptop or smartphone and training on how to use it.

Charleston County lags in internet connections

Charleston County leads the state in the percentage of households – 93% – with computing devices, such as smartphones and laptops. But 20.1% of Charleston County households – some 32,861 households – do not have internet subscriptions compared to 12% of the households in Greenville County and 15% in Richland County. Charleston County also leads in the digital gap over Berkeley and Dorchester counties, which report 17% and 16%, respectively, of households without an internet connection.

Shealy said the lower percentage of households without internet connections in mostly rural Berkeley and Dorchester counties is due to fewer internet services providers in those counties as compared to the more urban Charleston County.

He said it is a basic economic fact that companies will install more miles of fiber optic cable in areas where there are more potential customers. The digital gap in more densely populated counties, however, exists because residents might not be able to afford the service or they don’t understand the technology, he explained.

After Shealy finished his presentation to the regional COG the group’s board chairman Caldwell Pinckney Jr., a member of Berkeley County Council, reached out to shake his hand and to say he appreciates the work he’s doing. Pinckney told Shealy he represents Berkeley County, which is mostly rural, except for the fast-growing Cane Bay and Nexton communities.

A gap in broadband service “in rural areas is not a new phenomenon,” Pinckney said. “When it comes to those who are further away from the wheel they don’t seem to get all the grease they need, if any at all. People in rural Carolina and Berkeley County have always been behind the eight ball on this and a lot of other issues.”

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