May 27, 2020| Loren Thomas | WLTX TV RICHLAND COUNTY, S.C. — Improving broadband around the state has been a topic of discussion since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, the effects of having limited broadband in rural areas are becoming more evident.
Tri-County Electric Cooperative is working to change that.
On Wednesday afternoon, the company spoke about their plan to get broadband to their customers around the Midlands, especially in the Lower Richland area.
"It's no longer a luxury, it's an essential service, " says Representative Wendy Brawley, who represents the Lower Richland area of Hopkins, Eastover and Gadsden.
Brawley organized the Zoom call with Tri-County Electric Cooperative CEO Chad Lowder.
"When this pandemic first began, to get a COVID-19 test you had to go online and get a referral from a doctor," says Rep. Brawley. "If you are trying to file for unemployment, the first step is to make an application online. We all know how what it's like to have spotty if not any coverage for internet access."
Lowder says they have a plan in place.
"We will be starting our construction of main-line fiber in August of this year," says Lowder. "The intention is to get our first test customer on roughly by October and start rolling fiber out to all of the first phase customers and members late this year, first of next year."
Lowder says normally it take five to seven years for broadband plans to finish, but he anticipates being able to reach all of their customers in three years.
The only thing that could stall their timeline is funding. Currently Tri-County is awaiting funding from the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) rural broadband fund. The FCC plans on spending $20 billion on broadband infrastructure around the nation.
Tri-County's plan could cost $50 million. While they are anticipating receiving some money from South Carolina's CARE's act funding, they understand that the state has set aside $80 million for state-wide infrastructure.
"Tri-County has about six customers per mile of line," says Lowder. "That is very rural and that is why we are little behind here. Our job as a co-op is to see where the differences are and try to work with our legislatures, with the federal side and with local leaders to achieve what needs to be done and that's get fiber to the home."
Lowder anticipates that the broadband service for their customers will be below market value. The market value is currently around $90 per month.
Representative Brawley says she's hopeful that her constituents will be able to receive reliable internet.
"They're already here," she says. "They are already providing basic electrical services in our community. They have not only the ability to do it, but they have the will to do it."