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In rural South Carolina, a groundbreaking broadband project takes root

With federal money and local ingenuity, high-speed internet was brought to Allendale County, where many Black residents lacked access

It was Christmastime and Henry Youmans, the former town administrator of Allendale, S.C., hoped to video chat with relatives he hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic. But doing so in Allendale, where a strong internet connection is rare, would be difficult.

Luckily, Youmans was part of an under-the-radar coalition of public officials, private sector stakeholders and educational institutions attempting to bring high-speed, affordable broadband to Allendale. And right around Christmas, he was asked to test out the public Wi-Fi signal emanating from a new hub attached to a local elementary school.

“It was just like turning on a switch and lighting up a whole area,” Youmans said. “I must’ve sat there for about an hour, two hours, Facetiming and updating my phone and doing all of these things I couldn’t normally do.”

Youmans used his smartphone to video chat with relatives in Michigan, New Mexico and North Carolina who he hadn’t seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That was a great experience,” he said. “And I got to do a lot of stuff and kind of touch base with my family that I’ve been disconnected from for a while.”

Since January, the project has expanded beyond the public Wi-Fi network, powered by additional hubs at key locations around town, to offer residential broadband service for families with school-age children, many of whom have struggled to keep up with school throughout the pandemic because they cannot participate in online learning.

Allendale’s situation prior to implementation of the new program wasn’t unique; it persists throughout rural Southern communities, especially poorer areas with larger Black populations. Allendale County is one of 156 counties in 10 states that the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies defines as the Black Rural South. In those counties, 46 percent of Black households lack high-speed internet, according to the center’s research.

That’s either because they cannot afford a signal or because their area isn’t serviced, but regardless of the reason, broadband is a boon to education, health care and economic growth, said Dominique Harrison, technology policy director at the center.

Without efforts to expand broadband in Black communities in the South, “the worst-case scenario is that we’ll continue to see the negative implications of not being connected,” Harrison said.

Rural broadband is a priority in Washington for both Democrats and Republicans, but it’s Democrats such as South Carolina’s James E. Clyburn, the House majority whip whose district includes Allendale, currently pushing for a massive increase in funding designed to enable grassroots, community-driven broadband projects.

Officials in South Carolina who worked on the project say that with sufficient funding, it can be replicated throughout the state and across rural America.

‘Nobody really knew if it would work’

It was Election Day and Jim Stritzinger, the broadband coordinator at the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, had just returned to the office after voting when a supervisor asked him what kind of pilot program he’d do if he could do anything he wanted.

Stritzinger didn’t think twice.

“I said I would install internet in Allendale,” Stritzinger recalled. “And she said, ‘OK.’”

During the pandemic, South Carolina had allocated $50 million in emergency funding provided by Congress for broadband services. Most of the money had been spent, but about $393,000 was left in danger of expiring if it wasn’t spent by the end of December.

Stritzinger knew that a length of underground fiber ran through Allendale County even though there was no internet service provider operating in the area, making it an area ripe for connection without having to build too much infrastructure or contend with companies seeking to turn a profit in the region.

He hatched a two-part plan and launched “a full-court press” to get it up and running before the deadline. First, he used equipment donated by private companies to launch the public Wi-Fi network by installing hubs at Allendale Elementary School, the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie campus and a local library.

The free public network was up and running by the deadline, qualifying for federal funding.

Second, Stritzinger designed a private LTE network called a citizens broadband radio service, or CBRS, that transmits a signal to homes using a band of radio frequency spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission made available for the first time last year. Allendale’s CBRS network is one of the first in the country.

“Honestly, nobody really knew if it would work or not,” Stritzinger said. “This was truly a pilot, also known as an experimental project. Everybody kind of looked around the table and said, ‘OK, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, if ever there was a time to take a risk, this is it.’”

The CBRS network will start by serving about 300 households in Allendale, but it will grow to cover about 1,000. A free trial period will extend through the end of September, at which point service provided by a private company will cost $34.95 a month.

Stritzinger believes the project can be duplicated throughout South Carolina because the CBRS network uses three towers belonging to the state’s PBS network. More than 400 similar towers exist throughout the state.

“So that was one of the most compelling reasons to try this project,” he said. “Because if we got it to work, you can instantly see the scalability.”

Such networks could be built nationally too. The key is to identify what Stritzinger describes as “available vertical assets” capable of transmitting a clear signal over distance.

“Most rural communities are not educated on how to use their water towers, even old rusty ones,” he said. “All we’re looking for is a high point to mount equipment.”

‘How much will it cost if we don’t do it?’

Back in Washington, Democrats are taking to heart projects like the one in Allendale as they push to include $100 billion for broadband in a massive infrastructure package that party leaders want to pass through Congress, with or without Republican support, this summer.

Plans put forth by Clyburn and President Joe Biden both prioritize support for projects led by municipalities, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and other “providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.” Clyburn also supports digital equity grants for broadband projects in minority communities.

Republicans have proposed their own broadband infrastructure projects, though they typically come with a much smaller price tag attached. For the most part, Republicans oppose municipal-backed broadband projects, preferring a private sector-driven approach.

Many Republicans have balked at Democrats’ $100 billion broadband endeavor, arguing that the cost is too high. But speaking in Allendale at the unveiling of its broadband project last month, Clyburn rejected the criticism.

“We ought not be arguing about how much it’s gonna cost. We need to ask ourselves, how much will it cost if we don’t do it?” he asked. “What will it cost to the future of these children if we don’t spend this money and connect them to the internet? That’s what we ought to be arguing about. So I don’t want to talk to people who tell me it’s gonna cost too much. We’ve got to change our way of thinking, and we’ve got to change our way of doing things.”

In Allendale, they already have.

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