The Importance of Accurate Broadband Maps
Mapping a Solution to the Digital Divide
Many rural communities across the United States are underserved when it comes to access to reliable broadband, and the digital divide is among the many issues brought to light throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. An abrupt transition to eLearning put many families at a disadvantage based on their geographical location. Without access to high-speed internet, students in the rural areas of South Carolina were forced to travel to public spaces to access Wi-Fi hotspots or fall behind in their daily assignments.
Recognizing the undeniable need of students, HTC immediately partnered with school-district leaders in Horry and Georgetown counties. HTC was able to offer students free Wi-Fi Internet via strategically placed hotspots at specific education facilities in both counties. In addition, a residential connection was made available for primary residences of Horry County Schools students that were located within the HTC service area who were not already connected to broadband service. As families struggled through the financial hardships caused by the global health crisis, HTC sought to remove one major hurdle standing between students in our local communities and continued education.
Although there are many rural communities throughout South Carolina, Horry County is in many ways an exception to the digital divide. HTC is proud to be a driving force behind 99.3% of the Horry County population having access to high-speed internet. HTC has deployed more than 5,000 miles of fiber-optic cable and 2,920 miles of coaxial cable across Horry County to ensure broadband access is treated like the necessity it is, not a privilege. Our battle doesn’t stop in our hyper-local communities. Your cooperative is also exploring federal grant funding opportunities to help fill the gaps in neighboring Marion and Georgetown counties.
The Disconnected 10%
Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports 90% of South Carolina households have access to internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps, the FCC standard, the pandemic magnified the need to connect the remaining 10%. The strong reliance on connectivity stems beyond eLearning needs. Remote work, telehealth needs, emergency communications, and taking refuge in digital entertainment all demand the presence of high-speed internet.
Federal and state funding and grants help cooperatives like HTC deliver much-needed broadband to rural areas. However, criteria for this funding is heavily weighted on the FCC’s outdated National Broadband Map. Even the FCC has recognized that its map has significant gaps in accurately depicting where high-speed internet is and isn’t available in rural America. Data for this map has traditionally been collected at the census block level.
Census block groups generally contain between 600 and 3,000 people. In early editions of the map, if just one business or residence in that entire block population has access to broadband, the entire census block could be categorized as “served,” and ineligible for funding. In short, collections of homes and businesses of more than 2,000 people could be forced to go without broadband access because of a loophole in the federal mapping process.
Mapping A Change
There is a movement for a better way to develop the National Broadband Map. Congress and the FCC are pushing for a digital data-collection process that offers more precise broadband access data as opposed to using sweeping census block information. Washington lawmakers are also making moves toward more accountability and accuracy in how large carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and others report areas they serve, beginning with the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, which passed earlier this year.
Closer to home, HTC and the other members of the South Carolina Telecommunications and Broadband Association (SCTBA) partnered to create broadband maps that provide a more accurate, up-to-date depiction of broadband accessibility in South Carolina. The maps highlight the best available technologies across the state. In addition, the maps spotlight population densities in areas that lack access. These areas of need should be a top priority for lawmakers and providers of telecommunication services. Accurate maps, like those crafted by HTC and SCTBA partners, will also help leaders and stakeholders across the state better target resources to help bridge the digital divide.
Bridge the Gap
While we fight for a better way to collect data and plot broadband access maps, HTC is making strides in our community to eliminate areas that lack high-speed internet access.
The South Carolina Legislature has voted to allocate $50 million of the state’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds for broadband mapping and planning, infrastructure, and mobile hotspots. These funds, managed by the Office of Regulatory Staff, will help meet the immediate needs of the 10% in South Carolina while setting the stage for a long-term solution to broadband access and adoption.
How You Can Help
HTC and your rural neighbors have a simple ask. Complete the census. By visiting www.census.gov or calling 1-844-330-2020, you can help guide how much money our community receives from the government. A steady increase of state and federal funding will become available in the next few years to help bridge the digital divide, and these funds will be allocated based on the data collected by the census.
Time is almost up. The deadline for the 2020 U.S. Census self-response phase is coming to a close this fall, and your involvement is more important than you may realize. The once-a-decade count determines where our communities need important infrastructure upgrades, where new schools and medical facilities should be built, and, among so many other critical decisions, it plays a vital role in delivering vital broadband services to rural communities. Fewer than 6 in 10 households in South Carolina have responded to the census, and even fewer in Horry County. Be a part of the difference-making community. Visit www.census.gov or call 1-844-330-2020 to complete the census.