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South Carolina County Plots Course to Affordable Internet

Bamberg County is working to develop a broadband system that will make high-speed Internet affordable for underserved communities with the help of a $12 million federal grant.

(TNS) — Bamberg County is working to develop a broadband system that will make high-speed Internet affordable for underserved communities with the help of a $12 million federal grant.

County Administrator Joey Preston gave an overview of the broadband expansion project, along with engineers Ethan Beeks and William Metts of Branchville-based W. Metts Engineering Co. Inc., during a council meeting earlier this month.

Congressman Jim Clyburn and other officials gathered in Bamberg on Sept. 6 to celebrate a $24 million investment in rural Internet improvements in Orangeburg and Bamberg counties.

The investment will see $12 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect Program go to each of the counties for broadband infrastructure improvements.

In Bamberg County, the funding will create a fixed wireless network to provide high-speed Internet. An estimated 5,241 people, 254 businesses, 60 farms and 24 educational facilities in Bamberg County could benefit.

Metts Engineering is the county's engineer for the project and will manage the firm which will be selected to build the system out.

"We have been working with the county on a number of applications to provide broadband to Bamberg County residents," Beeks said in an email following the meeting.

"The project is defined by unserved U.S. Census blocks and doesn't have an easily definable boundary. Possibly the most accurate way to describe it would be the Highway 78 Corridor from Denmark to Whetstone's Crossing near Branchville, but that doesn't completely define it," Beeks said.

During the council meeting, Beeks said, "We've applied for up to 10 different projects with Bamberg County trying to get broadband done to serve folks. This one was a successful one. We're happy about this one.

"One of the portions of this project is that it is a 100 percent federal grant. So there's no investment from the financial perspective from Bamberg County to serve these folks."

He explained that the USDA grant has a lot of intricacies to work through.

"There's a lot of hoops to jump through before we can actually put boots on the ground. We've done it a number of times. Some of the obstacles that we'll see will be environmental reviews from RUS (United States Rural Utilities Service) engineers," he said. The process may be quick or take as long as 12 months.

"All of our construction will take place on the shoulder of the road in the public right-of-way, but RUS still would like us to investigate whether or not there's any environmental impacts with plants, wildlife or anything with historical facilities and what not," Beeks said.

"We're encouraged right now in that we feel like ... it's going to be a shorter period, but we're not 100 percent sure. Once we're allowed to proceed, we'll order materials and begin the engineering process to get boots on the ground to determine where those lines need to go.

"We won't have to do the entire area before we order materials. We're looking at probably optimistically a two-year time frame to get the majority of the cable in the ground. The project is a five-year project overall. So we don't have to be done in five years, but we would like to finish as quickly as we can," he said.

Beeks continued, "If folks don't necessarily take the service on day one, but they decide two or three years down the road that they want to have service, we're still in that window, and we can still provide them with service. ... Bamberg County will own the asset. Bamberg County will be the provider."

Preston said there would be an office in Bamberg with a drive-thru in the future.

"It'll actually have staff in there paid for by the system. If people want to buy the service, they just go right there and do it, answer questions. It's just like any other broadband organization," the administrator said.

One of the benefits of this grant is that all the construction and equipment costs to anyone in the area are 100 percent paid for by the grant, Beeks said.

"So what that means is if you're a customer and you sign up for service, all the construction to your home, all the in-home wiring, the wireless router, all of that is covered as a capital expense as part of the grant. The only thing you would be obligated for is your monthly bill," he said, noting that the grant is a five-year grant and individuals would have to sign up for the service within that window.

"There are some other federal programs that the county will participate in," Beeks said, including the Affordable Connectivity Program. Those who qualify for ACP will get $30 a month off their Internet bill.

Metts said, "Our proposal is 100 megs (megabits per second) for $59 before the discount."

Beeks said, "There will be different plans that will available to folks. It'll be dependent on cost and speed of that plan. So if the plan that you select would allow for that ACP to cover the majority of that bill, then it would be virtually free."

Metts said, "Our view is that the system needs to stand alone. So it needs to make enough money so that it can operate itself and not have to be subsidized by property tax."

Councilman Evert Comer asked, "The wireless routers ... will be provided at no cost to every homeowner?"

Beeks said if individuals sign up for the service within the five-year grant window, it would be "a capital expense, and it would be covered at no cost."

"Now if someone 10 years from now (applies), and there's no grant funding, I can't say what that would be," he said.

A telephone number will be eventually be developed for individuals to call with questions regarding the broadband system.

"Potential subscribers will be able to call about the service area, questions on construction, customer signups and eventually account information and customer service," Beeks said later.

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