South Carolina legislators passed a bill last week that would change how broadband services are set up in rural parts of the state. However, local officials in at least one county are crying foul.
Many parts of South Carolina–especially rural areas–don’t have any kind of broadband internet access at all. For most providers, the costs of installing cables and setting up the necessary systems are too expensive for places with a small number of potential customers.
In order to expand access into those areas, Orangeburg and Oconee counties both received multi-million dollar federal stimulus grants last year to provide the service over more than 200 square miles in each respective county.
However, those projects face an uncertain future after the bill unanimously passed the House. The legislation would require any government-sponsored projects to follow the same rules as businesses. This ranges from following the proper tax schedule to buying liability insurance.
Rep. Mike Gambrell (R-Anderson) says the government shouldn’t have an unfair advantage over companies.
If a government decides to get into the broadband business, they’ve got to abide by the exact same rules as any small business or any large business in South Carolina would have to abide by.
But Orangeburg County officials say they fear the new law could hurt their plans. The county’s $19 million grant is meant to expand internet access to its residents. The county says the regulatory hoops will cost them an extra $4 million they don’t have. Meanwhile, Oconee County has already begun work on a similar $9.6 million grant it received.
With private providers unwilling to expand into low-density areas, county officials say this is the only way for those people to get broadband service.
Michael Cone is the executive director of the South Carolina Association of Counties. He says the bill is an overreaction.
There’s no reason a county would want to go into the broadband business, except that no private provider will serve the area.
The bill makes an exception for “unserved areas,” or Census blocks in which less than 10 percent of households have broadband access. In those situations, the government entities would be exempt from following most of the bill’s restrictions.
Gambrell says the law would simply apply the same rules used for phone services.
It comes from an old act for telephone service. What we’re doing is merely updating it to include broadband.
The bill now heads to the Senate.