In November of 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Included in that Act is an unprecedented federal appropriation for the deployment of broadband infrastructure development and digital inclusion efforts across the country. Specifically, South Carolina has been granted planning funds for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and Digital Equity (DE) program which ultimately leads to access to grant funds appropriated in the IIJA. The allotted time for the planning process extends through the summer of 2023. After submission of a final plan for both programs, federal grant funds in the hundreds of millions for the BEAD program and tens of millions for the DE program will be released to continue the “build-out” of broadband infrastructure and access across the state. The purpose of this memorandum is to invite each of you to become a formal partner in this important endeavor.
The good news is that South Carolina’s efforts to work collaboratively with internet service providers to bring broadband access across the state has been in place for many months. Thanks to the vision of many state leaders to direct funding from both the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2020 (CARES Act) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to broadband infrastructure, access and deployment of broadband technology, South Carolina exceeds most states across the nation. Now, the challenge is to plan strategically as grant funds from the IIJA are made available to the state.
By way of background, the Broadband Office which is contained within the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) is responsible for the administration of the BEAD program. This formula- based grant program aims to close the access gap for unserved and underserved areas of the country. And, in July of 2022, Governor McMaster tasked the South Carolina Department of Administration (Admin) with administering the Digital Equity Program which supports digital inclusion activities and builds capacity related to the adoption of broadband. While separate state agencies, these two organizations are collaborating as one broadband team to maximize this opportunity to transform our broadband infrastructure and usage.
Each Regional Council has experience in the planning process for local infrastructure investments whether the investment is transportation infrastructure, water and wastewater infrastructure or electric grid infrastructure. Broadband infrastructure planning is nuanced because of pockets with no service and/or service with no subscribers. The identification of these pockets without broadband availability have been mapped by the Broadband Office, and by the end of this grant cycle it is expected that all of these pockets will be eliminated. Likewise, the “digital divide” is often a product of subscription affordability, lack of devices and lack of knowledge in the applicability and usage of broadband technology. The DE program is designed to promote equity and inclusion among individuals and communities who may not have access to internet and devices. Specifically, Congress directs the purposeful inclusion of specific communities in the planning process. Those communities or groups include minority communities, rural communities, veterans, the aged population, tribal communities and public education.
Due to your longstanding working relationships with the entire local government community in South Carolina, our Broadband Team knows that each of South Carolina’s ten Council on Governments (COGs) are vital partners to both the BEAD and DE planning processes. In our submission to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), both programs allocated expenditures to each of the ten COGs to partner with us in planning and outreach efforts. Upon impending approval, we will propose a memorandum of understanding with each of your organizations as is required by the federal grant process.
There are several specific deliverables we are seeking from the COGs. First, the Broadband Team needs your assistance in the distribution of the GetConnectedSC.org survey. Every citizen is encouraged to take the survey, whether online or on paper, regardless of their internet availability. The impetus for this survey is to hear the voices of those who do not have internet access as well as those who do have access. We have set an aspirational goal of 30,000 responses to the survey within a few months of its release. With the COGs vast intergovernmental and not-for-profit networks, we hope to have a larger reach to residents and communities who would benefit from the planning that is informed by the survey.
The Broadband Team will travel across the state to conduct “vertical meetings” that will consist of notifying our intergovernmental stakeholders and partners of our planning goals as well as bringing awareness to the GetConnectedSC.org survey. Along with the vertical meetings, the Broadband Team will hold a series of “horizontal meetings” that will consist of a grassroots listening tour to hear from community members or “lived experts” on the disparate impacts of the digital divide. We request assistance from the COGs for the “vertical meetings” by using meeting venues or suggesting appropriate venues within a region and assisting with identifying participants who should be invited to these meetings. Further, the Broadband Team desires your input on the “vertical” grassroots meetings to ensure we are reaching community members to guide the planning stage of the programs.
We ask for your continued guidance as we solicit citizens’ perspectives from across the state. Part of the charm of South Carolina is the diversity of perspectives unique to each geographic region. COGs understand this diversity, and the Broadband Team needs your partnership and input as we attempt to capture the unique outlook of your constituents as it relates to availability and usage of internet services.
Lastly, each of you are invited to the kickoff event on the first-floor lobby of the State House in Columbia Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 10 a.m. Governor Henry McMaster and Congressman Jim Clyburn will announce the roll-out of the “Better Internet Survey.”The survey can be found at GetConnectedSC.org, and the website goes live on the 21st. This survey, along with the various meetings across the state, are the cornerstones of our planning efforts.
Communications will be sent out shortly to each COG director to further the conversation about working together on this exciting project.
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