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South Carolina Lawmakers OK Broadband Via Electric Co-Op

Under the legislation, electric co-ops and Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric utility that provides power to co-ops that serve mostly rural communities, can lease out space to ISPs on existing infrastructure.

South Carolina Capitol
South Carolina Capitol
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone
(TNS) — South Carolina soon could have another way to solve the problem of half a million residents without access to high-speed Internet.

On Thursday, state lawmakers passed a bill that would allow electric co-ops to lease out space on existing power poles to broadband providers interested in expanding Internet access into communities that need it.

“The bill is a huge step in the direction of bringing more broadband to more rural areas in our state, and I think every county in our state has a rural area that’s underserved so I think it affects us all,” said state Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg.

The bill now heads to S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk. McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor will take a look at the bill which tackles a problem the governor is interested in addressing.

“This is obviously an important initiative that the governor has been talking about for quite some time, and we’re extremely happy to see that the General Assembly agrees with him that it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way,” Symmes said.

Under the legislation, electric co-ops and Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric utility that provides power to co-ops that serve mostly rural communities, can lease out space on existing electric poles, in conduits and easements, to broadband providers for reasonable prices and conditions, for the purpose of running high-speed Internet lines. The legislation also allows the Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulator, to hear and settle any disputes.

The legislation also sets up a way for electric co-ops to expand broadband themselves.

“Co-ops are in the business presently in an unregulated fashion and so the (telecommunications companies) across the state, Horry telephone in my area, are obviously concerned that they are going to be competing in an area that it has already served,” said State Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry.

Running lines underground could take longer to achieve and is more expensive for telecom companies, Rankin said.

“Our goal is to try to incentivize capital investment in the state by defining payment for those who are not in the business, (and) who would want to access poles that are existing to run wire, instead of burying cable as many are doing presently,” Rankin said.

Both chambers passed the bill unanimously this week.

“Expanded access equals expanded opportunity — something every South Carolinian deserves,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said. “Today is a good day, and a good start, for South Carolina.”

The need for broadband, and the lack of high-speed Internet access in certain parts of the state, came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic which led to higher demands for virtual education and telemedicine, as well as more people working from home.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates 650,000 South Carolinians don’t have access to broadband Internet, including more than 552,000 people who live in rural areas, and more than 97,000 people who live in urban areas. One estimate to connect the the remaining 192,000 households in the state without broadband puts the cost at $800 million.

The Office of Regulatory Staff, a state agency tasked with providing Internet connections to needy state residents during the pandemic, has approved $50 million worth of broadband construction projects it hopes to be completed by December. Half of the cost of those projects is being paid for by the state with CARES Act dollars. The other half will be paid for by broadband providers. ORS estimates more than 25,000 households and more than 1,000 businesses that don’t have access would be able to get service.

During debate on Thursday, State Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Williamsburg, said expanding broadband has the potential to generate business in rural areas, but the issue needs to be revisited regularly by the General Assembly to ensure the entire state has access to broadband.

“The future economic success of this state is directly linked to how much access to broadband we have in South Carolina,” McKnight said.

Some lawmakers also have been working on proposals to pump more state money into broadband. One Republican legislator said that’s a next, necessary step.

State Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, said next year legislators will try to get a grant program going to help providers expand service to areas where it’s not financially viable because there aren’t enough customers.

“Well, this would bridge that gap and would allow them to run it and provide that access to the areas that aren’t served,” White said. “But before you can do a lot of that, you got to have all the providers in the room. And this bill put all the providers in the room and at the table ... We built the car, now we need to go put gasoline in it.”

©2020 The State, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.