NEWS: Federal deregulation could hurt broadband access in rural S.C., advocates say

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By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  Advocates for better access to broadband Internet say a federal deregulation decision expected next week could derail progress.

Only one in three households in some of South Carolina’s poorest counties lack access to broadband Internet, according to a new report by Connect South Carolina. Jim Stritzinger, the organization’s executive director, said the problem is spread throughout the state, but the report focused on the S.C. Promise Zone, six counties from Bamberg to Jasper that have received a federal designation as a vulnerable area in need of public-public and public-private partnerships to improve access to housing, education, jobs and more.

“We’re setting up a digital chasm between the haves and the have nots,” Stritzinger said. “Access is really critical.”

Progress is being made but there is a lot of work left to do, Stritzinger said. Earlier this year, AT&T announced it would offer “fixed wireless” Internet service in 70,000 locations across nine Southern states, including South Carolina. Stritzinger said AT&T and CenturyLink have promised to expand access in rural areas of South Carolina. He said fixed wireless locations — where wireless (WiFi) signals are  beamed from a tower for a community — are less expensive for service providers to install than burying optic cables for miles. He said the best option is for those providers to access current utility towers, with which local and state governments can provide help.

But threatening all that progress is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s plan to repeal Internet network neutrality rules next week.  Currently, those rules prevent Internet providers from controlling the speed at which content loads for end users. The possibility of Internet gateways that have variable costs has Stritzinger and others on edge.

“It would be a disaster. Without (net neutrality), there would likely be little to no build out in the rural areas,” he said.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who is from South Carolina and is one of five members on the commission, said she opposes deregulation.

“If we were to repeal net neutrality rules, those who access the Internet will now have a gatekeeper in the form of their Internet service provider, who would hold the key to their experiences online,” Clyburn told Statehouse Report. “You will have an entity who can extract tolls to you, give better service to those who can pay … (They) will be picking winners and losers.”

She also said deregulation would mean the Internet would no longer be a “utility” that government could regulate and help expand access, which would weaken  the FCC’s Connect America Fund.

“What authority would we be using for Connect America?” Clyburn asked. “We’re saying it’s no longer a utility service. It’s an information service.”

LIke establishing electricity or telephone service in the 20th century, it is expensive for providers to enter a community with fewer houses and more miles between those houses. The Connect America Fund gives incentives to companies like AT&T and CenturyLink to bring access to communities.

“I firmly feel that being without broadband Internet access today has worse ramifications than if we were without telephone service 30 or 40 years ago,” Clyburn said. “Without access, children are less likely able to do their homework when they leave their schools and libraries … There are a lot of things our citizens will not have access to if they do not have a broadband connection.”

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