Lagging high-speed internet has left rural communities struggling for jobs and accessible, affordable health care.
S.C. lawmakers on Thursday worked to fix that.
The S.C. House overwhelmingly approved a proposal for the state to help pay for expanded broadband internet access in poor S.C. counties.
The move comes as healthcare providers gathered for a telehealth summit in Columbia.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who has pushed telehealth as a means to close healthcare gaps in rural South Carolina, delivered the keynote address.
“That is all monumentally important,” McMaster said of helping poor South Carolinians interact online with surgeons, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals.
McMaster said he wasn’t well versed on the bill the House passed Thursday but indicated he supports any proposal that expands rural broadband access.
“If we could have a way for them to have access to needed information and treatment and advice early on, we could eliminate a lot of these problems and keep from being large problems,” the Columbia Republican said. “If we can keep people healthy, then that takes a long way to the kind of prosperity we want to have.”
More than a half million South Carolinians are being left out of the digital economy due to lagging rural broadband access, according to the latest federal data. Those broadband deserts hurt efforts to expand health care, education and workforce development.
“Broadband no longer is a luxury, but a necessity,” state Rep. Mike Forester, R-Spartanburg, said Wednesday on the House floor.
Ten states have adopted similar legislation, including some in the Southeast.
“We’re sort of in the doughnut hole by not having something like this,” Forester said, noting the S.C. Chamber of Commerce supports the bill. “In today’s economy, access to high-speed internet is critical to start a business, maintain a farm and provide quality education for children.”
‘One of our biggest issues’
Rural hospital closures, too, have placed pressure on the need to expand telemedicine, which allows doctors to video conference with patients in rural areas.
South Carolina has done a good job of connecting providers to broadband, but the state has struggled to connecting patients, said Palmetto Care Connections CEO Kathy Schwarting. Her nonprofit provides technology, broadband and telehealth support services to providers in rural and under-served areas of the sate.
The Medical University of South Carolina has launched a telehealth program in more than 100 schools, where a nurse practitioner or a pediatrician from MUSC, or the local community, examines students remotely.
“MUSC has assisted a lot of rural communities,” said Schwarting, who supports the bill. “(But) the issue were running into is finding a service provider that will provide those residential services,” and providing enough bandwidth and redundancy for family practice physicians to reliably access patients’ electronic medical records.
“Putting in the infrastructure in these rural communities is going to be costly,” she said. “Broadband is one of our biggest issues.”
Telecom companies have invested slowly in rural communities to provide broadband because of the high costs required to connect and serve people in sparsely populated areas, said Abbey Plexico with Spectrum Enterprise.
“So when it comes to rural health ... there’s not a lot of other business in there to justify us spending the money to build the infrastructure into those areas,” Plexico said. “If they can get more funding for that infrastructure, then we’re more likely to go to those areas. ... So, hopefully, a bill like this will allow for funding for us to be able to expand our network into those areas.
Money on the table
If the bill passes, providers could apply to the state for up to $2 million to expand broadband internet service in under-served areas, where at least 90 percent of households do not have access to fixed broadband at speeds faster the dial-up.
At a minimum, companies would have provide at least 25 megabits download and 3 megabits upload to receive grant funding, which is the benchmark set by the Federal Communications Commission for broadband service.
S.C. officials could claw back that state grant money if companies fail to keep their promises, including advertised connection speeds.
Providers could also get federal grants and would have to invest their own money.
Rep. Brian White, a Republican from rural Anderson County who sponsored the bill, said he envisions about $30 million going toward the program by 2030.
Supporters say the state’s help in closing the digital divide is long overdue.
Republican Rep. Bill Taylor said his Upstate district — about two-thirds of Aiken County, or roughly the size of Rhode Island — “is a complete internet desert.”
The bill now heads to the S.C. Senate.