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Pandemic relief money is bringing internet access to places that didn’t have it

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One of the ultra fast broadband towers is seen on a rural farm in Eureka on February 21, 2012 in Hamilton, New Zealand.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act provides about $42.5 billion in funding to expand broadband access, but the application deadline is fast approaching and some states are looking for more time. Sandra Mu/Getty Images

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We’ve been talking for more than a year now about how the internet is everything. And there are still places in the United States where there basically is none. For example, Allendale, South Carolina, a town of around 3,000 people that’s not far from the Georgia border. Officials have called it an internet desert. The state got $50 million in CARES Act money for broadband expansion and used some of it to install a wireless network in Allendale that runs at broadband speeds.

It’s run by a local internet service provider and free to residents through the end of October. I spoke with Jim Stritzinger, South Carolina’s broadband coordinator. He said the state went with wireless over fiber broadband because it’s fast to deploy. They went from nothing to offering service in 61 days. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jim Stritzinger (Photo courtesy Stritzinger)

Jim Stritzinger: We’ve tested as high as 78/6 — so by that I mean 78 megabytes download speed, 6 megabytes upload speed — which is over twice of the federal standard of 25/3. And in the state of South Carolina, we’ve kind of adopted this wireless-bridge-to-a-wired-future theory. And we’re keenly aware that there’s so many 6-year-olds out there that don’t have internet at home, and we want them to have something quickly. But we also don’t want fixed wireless to prevent a home from getting fiber to the home in the future. So we think it’s really kind of a one-two punch, where you get wireless deployed fast, and then you come back and you backfill with, hopefully, fiber to the home.

Molly Wood: Do you see that same [internet service provider] doing that infrastructure work? Do you hope to attract other ISPs by saying, “Hey, there’s demand and real need in this area”?

Stritzinger: Well, I think it’s interesting, because when you think about an internet desert, a place where internet’s never been before, I really learned a lesson going out to this area and working so much, because there are no Ring video doorbells, there’s no smart homes, there’s no Netflix being streamed on family homes. There’s a real need to lift up these families and help them advance their capabilities at home. So when you think about that, there’s a need first to connect the family, lift up their capabilities, and then longer term, their demands for bandwidth increase, because they start doing more sophisticated things.

But the most important thing is to get them connected fast. And it won’t shock you that if you can see there’s adoption of the internet down a street, for example, if you get 20 people signing up for wireless service down one street, that’s great insight for the fiber provider to come in after the fact and build fiber to the home. So it’s really smart in a lot of ways, and it helps provide great line of sight for the fiber-to-the-home providers to come in.

Wood: What do you think the future looks like? There’s all this American Rescue Plan money flowing to states, there is potentially going to be money for broadband infrastructure in the infrastructure bill that’s being debated. What do you think that could mean for you in terms of future projects?

Stritzinger: It really harkens back to the 1930s when electricity was deployed in rural America. And I’m excited to have a chance in my lifetime to do what that generation did for electricity. I want to do the same thing for broadband. So I’m expecting that a large investment from the state’s American Rescue Plan money will be made into broadband. And candidly, I think we’re going to try to fix the state in three years, it’s kind of my goal. I would love to be able to give everybody something in the next three years, and that would be extraordinary.

Wood: You know, it is hard for many Americans to conceive of a place that doesn’t have internet. Like, what does that mean for economic development?

Stritzinger: So if your community doesn’t have internet, I think back to the days of ghost towns out West. And a lot of the ghost towns became that way because they didn’t have fresh water. And in this day and age, entrepreneurs flock to the internet like moths to a flame. And if you don’t have it, the counter is also true. Your ability to have new and birth a new business comes from the internet. Your ability as a resident to participate in telehealth — a lot of our rural communities have lost their hospitals. And therefore, you’re left with a 90-minute commute to get an interaction with a medical expert. So bringing telehealth in is a big deal. The ability for a student to do their homework at home. And that’s the other thing.

A lot of communities are used to having [an internet fail-safe] be a local McDonald’s or Starbucks [that] might have Wi-Fi. Well, in a place like Allendale, you don’t have that. We don’t have any retail establishments that can support drop-in students. So we had a combination of very little retail presence with free, public Wi-Fi together with everything else. So Allendale had everything going against it. So to go in and do what we did, really gives that community a chance of participating in the digital economy. And we got to do that across the board. I’m looking at every community, and I want these students that live in these rural communities [that] are beautiful, every bit as talented as the ones in the big cities, and just giving them a shot is a big deal.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

The Allendale wireless project is basically like a custom long-term evolution, or LTE network, and Stritzinger admitted that the speeds aren’t totally consistent from house to house based on congestion or a lot of trees. After October, the cost of the service will go from free to about $45 a month.

“People keep telling me we got to wait on 5G, and we ain’t got no G, I’m going to want to talk to them,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn said at a press conference for the wireless project this month. Allendale is in his congressional district. “If I don’t have any G at all, give me 2G, 3G, 4G. We’ll get the 5G later on. Give me what Gs I can get now.”

Clyburn is the sponsor of the Internet for All Act, which would allocate more than $94 billion toward getting affordable, high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved communities. The Biden administration has also budgeted $100 billion in broadband support in its infrastructure proposal.

One of the things we have asked on this show related to broadband internet access is: What’s up with AT&T? The big telecom appeared to have stalled in its fiber deployment, so much so that a 90-year-old man spent $10,000 to take out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal to demand some decent internet access so he and his wife could stream some movies and TV during the pandemic. We called AT&T back in March and asked them if they were planning to use wireless instead of fiber to fill in all their access gaps. They said no, for the record. Well, this week, as you probably heard, AT&T announced plans to basically dump its content division, spinning its assets off into a combined company with Discovery, in which it will be an investor only. And earlier this year, it also got rid of DirecTV, turning it into a stand-alone company that will be run by a private equity firm.

The story is that these acquisitions had left AT&T with so much debt and so little bandwidth that it couldn’t effectively focus on its connectivity business, either in terms of fiber or 5G. On an analyst call discussing the deal with Discovery, AT&T CEO John Stankey said the company intends to double its investment in 5G and maybe overtake Verizon by the end of 2023, and that it intends to double its fiber footprint by the end of 2025. Those folks who can’t or won’t take out full page newspaper ads will be waiting.

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