Effort seeks to ‘connect’ area

  • FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn speaks during the Nov. 27 meeting in Barnwell.

The effort to “get connected” in the Lowcountry Promise Zone is moving forward and was highlighted this week at a meeting in Barnwell.

“A meeting in March 2016 set the stage for where we are today,” said Jim Stritzinger, Executive Director of Connect South Carolina. Since that meeting the United States Department of Agriculture provided a grant to help stakeholders collect data on digital connectivity in the Promise Zone which includes all or portions of Barnwell, Allendale, Bamberg, Hampton, Jasper and Colleton counties.

“We see our ethical obligation as being the same as electrifying rural America in the 1930’s,” said Stritzinger.

The major stakeholders have been meeting almost monthly since. Monday’s meeting at the Southern Carolina Business Center included representatives from Connected Nation, Connect South Carolina, AT&T, Century Link, Frontier, area business leaders and educators.

He said the challenges identified are access, adoption and use. Access, he explained, is the physical infrastructure. Adoption is subscribing to the service. Use is how the internet is used effectively.

A benchmark speed of 25 megabits download and 3 megabits upload was set. (A megabyte equals 8 megabits.)

What they discovered was:

• 61 percent of households have 25/3 internet.

• 63 percent of residents are dissatisfied with their internet service.

• 27 percent of households have access to two or more internet service providers (ISPs).

• The average download speed is 29 megabits per second.

• There are 10 fixed technology providers in the area

• 89 percent of the land area is covered by at least two ISPs.

• 92 percent of residents are interested in additional choices for internet services.

The main internet providers in the Lowcountry Promise Zone are Century Link, AT&T and Frontier.

They also learned that there are 28,474 households without connectivity, 46 percent of “disconnected” residents consider cost to be a barrier to connectivity and $69 is the average cost per month per household.

The study also found that households generally have 4.9 internet devices and 22 percent are interacting with some frequency.

The economics is a major issue. “We are creating an economic divide in the United States” whose impact will be seen 20 years from now, he said.

“It’s a different day and age,” he said, noting that people have to understand why it is important to have internet in the home “particularly for those with K-12 children in the home.”

FCC Commissioner

Zeroing in on the problem was guest speaker Mignon Clyburn, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission and South Carolina native.

“As this aptly named zone implies, the area is one with incredible promise. That promise remains because you recognize that there is, and I quote, “no single point of responsibility” when it comes to enabling our communities. You are willing to work a little longer and a lot harder together, across all sectors of government and private industry, to see that these statistics will change, because each tick upward in broadband access and adoption, unlocks new economic opportunities,” said Clyburn.

“Broadband is no longer a luxury, it is essential in our daily lives,” she said. “Broadband is the gateway, through which many Lowcountry residents and businesses obtain critical information, find jobs, stay connected with teachers and health care providers, and keep up to date with family and friends.”

“Since 2009, as a member of the Federal Communications Commission, I have remained steadfast in my commitment, to ensure that the FCC uses all the tools at our disposal, to ensure that everyone in the Lowcountry Promise Zone, and indeed the nation, has access to affordable broadband,” said Clyburn. “One of the points I continue to make, is that we need to make the business case for universal broadband access. This goes beyond the very true arguments about broadband being a fundamental tool for 21st Century economic empowerment, and that we all benefit when there is universal connectivity.”

“Fortunately, I am not alone, because your plan for the Promise Zone does just that,” she said. “You will engage schools and libraries to launch “homework hotspots,” encourage providers to bring low-cost broadband offerings to vulnerable communities, train and educate those who are not as familiar with internet services and how to keep themselves safe online, and attract and facilitate technology partnerships in the region. One area close to my heart is telehealth, a perfect example for making the business case for broadband.”

Clyburn continued, “One of the most important tools we have at the FCC when it comes to bringing affordable broadband to the nation, is our universal service program, which I often refer to as a four-legged stool. One leg is a program supporting broadband in high-cost areas, where the economics do not make sense to deploy broadband. Another, and equally important, is a program that supports economically disadvantaged citizens who cannot afford voice and/or broadband. Yet another supports broadband for health-care institutions, and the other provides broadband support for schools and libraries.”

“We need all of these programs working together, particularly for the millions of Americans, that do not have access to broadband. For most of us, going an hour without our smartphone is difficult, just imagine if you are forever foreclosed, and are stuck in a digital darkness,” she said.

“But, as I have often said, and your report affirms, deployment is only part of the equation. We must put a spotlight on affordability, because it is those in the lowest income brackets that are the least likely to adopt broadband and it is those least able to afford broadband who stand to benefit the most. It is imperative that we focus on digital literacy, because it is those who cannot fully use the service or do not understand it, that are the least likely to adopt and stand to benefit the most. That is why efforts to educate, empower, and support are so vital,” she said.

She said the FCC’s Lifeline Program is in trouble, “making it incumbent on those who care about affordable access to work with providers, partner with state and local authorities and let the FCC know how their communities will be impacted if 70 percent of those who currently provide service to those most in need are forced out of the market.”

“Your action plan clearly notes that states and localities need to be at the front lines of the affordability conversations, but the FCC’s current Lifeline proposal takes states out of the conversation,” said Clyburn.

She encouraged those present to continue their efforts and provide feedback to local, state and national leadership.

AT&T Announcement

One announcement highlighting the progress in the Promise Zone was made by Ike Byrd, Regional Director External Affairs for AT&T South Carolina External and Legislative Affairs. He said AT&T is expanding access to high speed internet in Bamberg and Barnwell counties and other rural and underserved areas of South Carolina.

“Our Fixed Wireless Internet service delivers a home internet connection with download speeds of at least 10Mbps and upload speeds of at least 1Mbps. The connection comes from a wireless tower to a fixed antenna on customers’ homes or businesses. This is an efficient way to deliver high-quality, high-speed internet to customers living in underserved rural areas,” stated Byrd.

“This rollout, now in 18 states, began earlier this year and is part of our FCC Connect America Fund commitment. We will provide access to over 400,000 locations across 18 states by the end of this year, and over 1.1 million locations by 2020,” he said.

“With this innovative service, we are working to close the connectivity gap in South Carolina,” Byrd. “Access to fast and reliable internet is a game changer in today’s world. This service will bring additional opportunities for more customers in more parts of our state.”

In addition to South Carolina, the service is available to residents and businesses in parts of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.