Officials from the United States Department of Agriculture were in South Carolina this week to discuss efforts to improve broadband connectivity in rural areas.
Connectivity has been a priority issue for the Department of Agriculture. “Whether you’re living in an urban area or a rural community we see that so much is dependent on access to the internet. It’s no longer an amenity. It’s truly become a necessity,” Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett said Tuesday.
Hazlett and members of her staff met with representatives from the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina in Lexington and healthcare providers at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia. She called both “partners in rural infrastructure.”
“They have many needs in providing healthcare to rural communities and we’re going to be talking about some of those opportunities and challenges,” Hazlett said.
Broadband connectivity can help provide health care to rural areas via telemedicine. The internet is commonly used in education and few businesses can run without it. An internet connection is now necessary for farming, according to Hazlett.
“Access to new markets for small businesses, for our farmers, with agriculture being such an important part of the economy here in South Carolina,” she said. “We know how important access to the internet is for precision agriculture and marketing the commodities that they grow.”
Hazlett said the USDA has programs to help rural communities improve their broadband connection. Part of her presentation Tuesday was providing that information to utility officials and health care providers.
“We have some loan programs and a grant program,” she said. “And we also have a new broadband pilot program that Congress made possible earlier this year with some new funding and some flexibility in our authority.”
Some of USDA’s recent investments in rural communities in South Carolina:
• Northeastern Technical College (NETC) was awarded two grants with a combined total of $999,986 to be used to help upgrade its distance learning network to include two rural school districts and two AMIkids Juvenile Justice Programs in South Carolina. More than 2,000 students at the project sites will be provided access to specialized workforce training opportunities through these projects. Two-way interactive video conferencing equipment will be provided to expand STEM-based technical training programs from NETC in Bennettsville and Cheraw and the other participating sites in South Carolina. The project will help alleviate the shortage of health care workers in rural communities.
• The University of South Carolina was awarded $478,556 to help provide Science, Technology, Education and Math (STEM) education programs. Interactive video equipment will be installed at five satellite college campuses in Sumter, Union, Lancaster, Allendale and Walterboro counties. The project will enhance network and video-conferencing equipment, increasing access to 33 STEM-related courses and Bachelor of Science in Nursing courses reaching more than 3,580 students. The project will provide increased opportunities for nursing degrees, addressing the need due to the expected shortage of 10,400 nurses statewide in the future.
• Clarendon County School District 2 was awarded $295,310 to help implement a distance learning strategy to connect its campuses in Manning, Turbeville, and Summerton to the district office in Manning and to each other. A dedicated distance learning room with a high definition video endpoint will be installed in each school. Other equipment will include network switching, router, and inside wiring upgrades. This project represents a first for these schools, providing new and exciting opportunities for the communities while providing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics-based instruction and professional development for teachers. According to the applicant, this investment will impact more than 2,100 students.
• Caresouth Carolina, Inc. was awarded $362,726 to help equip 10 hub/end-user sites, five end-user sites at Chesterfield County schools, and one hub site to improve access to primary care and opioid education and substance misuse treatment services. The project will provide portable video systems and telemedicine carts. CareSouth Carolina, Inc. is a community health center that provides primary, preventive and integrated behavioral health care for medically underserved residents of Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Lee and Marlboro counties in the Pee Dee region. By the end of the 3-year project period, Caresouth anticipates reaching 2,800 patients annually through telemedicine services (1,500 adult primary care patients, 1,000 children and youth receiving primary care and behavioral health services, and 300 patients).
• Georgetown County School District was awarded $393,902. This Rural Development investment will be used to provide Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics (STEM) education to students who are challenged by limited access to technology and other public services. The grant funding will provide the needed infrastructure to enable STEM instruction to those students as well as continuing education requirements for STEM instructional staff. By expanding STEM access, students will have a better understanding of career paths in the fields of Computer Science, Engineering and Robotics. There will be six hub/end user locations serving the rural schools of the Hemingway and Andrews communities. There will be one dedicated hub in the District Office in Georgetown. The total number of students that will have access to the STEM content through the project resources will be nearly 2,900.
• Bridges Preparatory School and Royal Live Oaks Academy were awarded $187,064 to purchase video conferencing equipment to provide interactive distance learning services for the two schools, which serves a population of more than 13,000 people in Beaufort, Jasper, Colleton and Hampton counties. The project will benefit the two schools by providing mobile distance learning carts containing video conferencing equipment. The equipment will enable the schools to share teachers, combine resources and bring new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education services and opportunities to students and faculty. It will also allow high school students to connect with the Technical College of the Lowcountry, where they will take vocational and dual enrollment courses relating to STEM education without the additional expense and travel time.
• This Rural Development investment will be used to help the Marlboro County School District enhance and expand its distance learning network. The project will upgrade an aging, out-of-date distance learning network and expand the network across nine sites in the county. The project will take the eight rural schools involved and create a network of course and program offerings that everyone will have access to. This program will increase job readiness Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and dual credit courses for students by 30 percent, proficiencies by 15 percent and create seven professional development courses. In doing so, it will create educational opportunities for a larger opportunity-rich community in several rural areas. The project will serve 4,353 students and more than 350 teachers and adults.