In a lackluster year that saw lawmakers cast aside huge portions of their agenda in order to stay away from the Statehouse in the midst of a pandemic, Thursday’s last-minute approval of a bill designed to bring high-speed internet access to more of rural South Carolina was a standout success.
Granted, the bill did not require a great deal of legislative creativity. It was the electric cooperatives – member-owned nonprofits created to serve the needs of their members – that brought lawmakers the idea of using their infrastructure to reduce the cost of stringing digital cable in areas that traditional internet providers were ignoring; the work involved winning those traditional providers’ support.
And as legislators black and white, Republican and Democrat, in the Senate and the House lined up to emphasize, the legislation – already in the works before COVID-19 appeared – is not going to solve the problem that sent our state scrambling to provide Wi-Fi access to students who lacked it.
Although it will free more co-ops to provide broadband access to their members, its success still depends heavily on the interest of digital providers that could now string cable from their power poles – providers that unlike co-ops are in business to turn a profit.
But legislators were so determined to work through to an agreement that COVID-nervous House members stayed in Columbia an extra day to give the bill what turned out to be perfunctory, unanimous approval – approval that came only after representatives spent 65 minutes expounding on the importance of the legislation, and of expanding it next year.
That extraordinary show of support came on top of the Legislature’s earlier decision to invest federal CARES Act funding in more traditional broadband expansion efforts, which grew out of the enthusiastic endorsement from Gov. Henry McMaster and the business, nonprofit and government leaders on his AccelerateSC Task Force.
It emerged from a political culture that can’t agree on whether COVID-19 is even a threat, much less how our government should react to it, but for which – as a result of COVID-19 – Wi-Fi access has suddenly become central to … everything. To our children’s education. To our medical care. To keeping in touch with friends and family. To our very jobs.
This marks a vital turning point for our state.
South Carolina now uniformly recognizes that broadband access is not a nice extra. It is, like electricity and telephone, an essential service, one that must be available, and available at a reasonable cost, to everyone in our state. Even those whose homes are spread so far apart or so difficult to reach or those who have so little money that it’s not worth it to the Spectrums and AT&Ts and even smaller digital providers to reach them. Even if it requires taxpayer subsidies.
H.3780 does not provide those subsidies. What it does, beyond creating the framework for the cooperatives to provide broadband themselves and sell access to their equipment to other providers, is make it the official public policy of our state to “facilitate the development and investment in broadband facilities in order to facilitate access to broadband services at all locations in the state, as this development is vital and necessary to induce, create, and promote industrial and economic development and to create job opportunities, enhance health care, and enhance educational advancement in the state.”
It will be up to the many legislators who stood in line to claim credit for the legislation – and those who did not but who voted for it without any indication of reservations – to make that policy a reality.
— Post and Courier, Charleston