¬†Increase broadband access to build South Carolina’s knowledge economy

By Rep. Bill Sandifer, Chair of the S.C. House of Representatives’ Public Utilities Subcommittee of the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee

The spread of broadband technology is vital to South Carolina’s future.

In fact, broadband can help enhance our state’s economic competitiveness, increase educational opportunities, and improve healthcare to benefit all South Carolinians.

We must begin by expanding access to broadband through creating a statewide network. An important first step in this process is making a high-speed, always-on Internet connection available to all citizens.

There are two methods for providing access to broadband. One is through wire or wire-type facilities provided by the telecommunications and cable companies. The other is through the use of wireless technology such as the type used by cell phones.

South Carolina has passed several laws to encourage the telecommunication and cable providers to invest in the infrastructure required to make broadband widely available. Actually, broadband connections are currently available in every South Carolina zip code. A 2006 study by the South Carolina Telephone Association (SCTA) found that over 80 percent of their customers’ lines have broadband capability.

I believe that the statistics indicate that we, as a state, must do more to assure that all of our citizens have access to broadband at an affordable price. Our state’s government has it within its power to do just that. South Carolina owns the infrastructure to make wireless broadband Internet more easily accessible. We can use the state-owned cellular towers and frequencies and partner with private Internet providers to offer basic service within our borders.

Furthermore, we must eliminate regulatory red tape that stands in the way of progress. One very tangible way is to be sure that South Carolina is maximizing federal grant dollars to create broadband access in rural areas. We must encourage the S.C. Public Service Commission to certify wireless companies in our state as “Eligible Telecommunications Carriers” (ETC). Due to this lack of certification, South Carolina companies currently do not receive any portion of the $7 billion federal grant fund into which every telephone customer pays. By contrast, companies in 43 other states are benefiting from this fund. By granting ETC status, the Commission would make South Carolina companies eligible to receive a share of the fund, which could be used to build towers and infrastructure to enable wireless broadband in areas not currently served.

We must continue to foster competition among broadband carriers to drive down costs and drive up quality and reliability. We must also be sure that all citizens of our state-especially those in our rural areas-can benefit from universal, affordable access to broadband technology.

Access to the federal grants could substantially impact the availability of wireless service. This is vital to our efforts to build South Carolina’s knowledge-based economy.

In addition to expanding broadband access in South Carolina, we must encourage more of our citizens to take advantage of the technology.

We’ve got work to do on that front. It’s our job to remove the financial barriers so broadband adoption can be as mainstream as telephone service.

Development of statewide broadband would also facilitate distance learning or the “virtual schools” initiatives currently being considered in the state legislature, such as the one recently passed by the House.

Distance learning and virtual schools offer online classes and much-needed options for our students, especially in rural areas and low-performing school systems. In addition, increasing broadband access would encourage more adults to continue their education through distance learning at our state’s exceptional technical colleges and universities.

A more educated workforce is more likely to attract jobs and capital investment to South Carolina.

Broadband is also beneficial on the medical front. An increase in telemedicine made possible through broadband would let doctors across our state diagnose patients and perform some services remotely through videoconferencing, improving the quality of healthcare. Telecommuting, which can often be a win-win for companies and employees, also becomes a greater reality with broadband access.

Finally, to encourage the further development of statewide broadband, a resolution was introduced in the S.C. House of Representatives that would create a commission to study improving wireless communications in South Carolina. One of its goals is to develop a “wireless cloud” of access across the entire state. Passing this legislation is crucial. It creates an opportunity for South Carolina to be first in the nation to deploy this technology on a statewide scale. And, it would significantly benefit our businesses, healthcare system, government, and our schools. Certainly, another benefit is safety. Because previously unserved rural areas of our state would have cellular access, 911 access would be more widely available.

Indeed, the S.C. General Assembly has long demonstrated a commitment to leveraging technology to improve the quality of life for all citizens.

We were first in the nation to link every school and library in the state to the Internet. We also lead the nation in computer access for our students. A statewide broadband initiative is the next important move to keep South Carolina on the leading edge of technology.

Failing to pursue this path means that South Carolina will be left behind by states that do. As other states move to develop more robust technology infrastructures, we must remain ahead of the curve with broadband access that will improve our business climate, our schools, and increase opportunities, particularly in our rural areas. Now is the time to set the framework that will make the idea a reality-to build South Carolina’s knowledge economy today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

Representative Bill Sandifer (R-Oconee) is chair of the SC House of Representatives Labor, Commerce and Industry’s Public Utilities subcommittee. His email address is WES@schouse.org.