State Sen. Thomas Alexander & Palmetto Care Connections Join CTF Florida to Discuss the Impact of the Digital Divide on South Carolina Communities
Despite significant efforts to close the state’s digital divide, including the passage of the Broadband Accessibility and the Growing Rural Economics with Access to Technology (GREAT) Acts in 2020, over 451,000 South Carolinians still lack access to reliable high-speed broadband, ranking South Carolina 31st in the country for broadband access. Of those South Carolinians still living without broadband access, the majority live in rural parts of the state.
South Carolina State Senator Thomas Alexander (R-District 1) – the lead sponsor of the 2020 Broadband Accessibility Act – recently joined Kathy Schwarting, Chief Executive Officer at Palmetto Care Connections, Ben Breazeale, Senior Director of Government Affairs at Charter Communications, and Connect the Future (CTF) Executive Director Zachary Cikanek for a wide-ranging discussion around the current state of the digital divide in South Carolina, and potential solutions to make sure all South Carolinians have access to broadband. Senator Alexander noted the significant role that broadband plays in the daily lives of all South Carolinians and emphasized the need to address the rural broadband gap in the state. The panelists agreed that while South Carolina has made considerable strides in closing the state’s digital divide, more work must be done to bring broadband to the ‘last-mile’ regions of the Palmetto state.
Key Takeaway #1: To quickly expand broadband access to more South Carolinians, we must remove existing barriers that slow or prevent broadband deployment.
Senator Alexander deemed broadband to be “critical infrastructure” needed to connect all South Carolinians to valuable educational, professional, medical, and social opportunities. Connect the Future’s Zach Cikanek agreed, but narrowed in on a specific barrier that slows or even prevents broadband deployment, particularly in rural areas – the unnecessary delays and oftentimes extraordinary expenses associated with attaching broadband infrastructure to utility poles owned by electric cooperatives in South Carolina. While the passage of the GREAT Act was an important first step toward addressing these barriers, both he and Senator Alexanderhighlighted the Public Service Commission’s immediate opportunity to further increase the Act’s effectiveness by increasing transparency and simplicity that would ensure swift resolution of pole attachments disputes.
Key Takeaway #2: Telehealth and telemedicine options will only continue to grow in popularity, making broadband access even more critical.
Prior to the pandemic, telehealth and telemedicine options constituted a small proportion of all healthcare services in the Palmetto state. The challenges of this past year, however, have transformed telemedicine into a necessary lifeline for many South Carolinians, and its adoption will likely continue to grow particularly in South Carolina’s rural regions where individuals must often drive an hour or more to their nearest hospital or healthcare center. Kathy Shwarting stressed the critical role that broadband access plays in allowing all South Carolinians to pick up their internet-enabled device, connect to an app, and have immediate access to health care professionals or practitioners.
Key Takeaway #3: Public-private partnerships will facilitate broadband expansion in South Carolina.
Senator Alexander mentioned the importance of coupling government funds – such as those awarded through the CARES Act – with increased private investment to expand broadband access across the state. Ben Breazeale reinforced the importance of public-private partnerships in getting funds to areas that currently do not have adequate broadband service by highlighting Charter’s planned rural build-out plans in South Carolina, as part of the Company’s larger $5 billion rural broadband initiative across the country. He specifically noted Charter’s plans to invest $362 million across 39 counties in South Carolina as part of that effort.