Patrick Hill, left, Beaufort County’s assistant county administrator for Communications and Information Technology, accepts a $20,000 check from Rich Knoll, director of business sales for Hargray Telecommunications , as part of Hargray’s Broadband for Everyone program. COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY

A recent donation from Hargray Communications to Beaufort County highlighted the latest efforts to ensure every resident has access to the internet through fiber-optic cables through the Broadband for Everyone program.

At the presentation of a $20,000 check Feb. 28, Hargray representative Richard Knoll noted the efforts made during the past four years in replacing the county’s copper cable lines with fiber-optic technology.

“Even today on the island and in Bluffton and Beaufort there’s still copper out there, but we’re making a lot of investments building out more fiber,” Knoll said. “The donation was made to ensure entire residential communities have internet access and to help this project get started a little bit faster.”

The Federal Infrastructure bill, America Rescue Plan Act, state and local initiatives, coupled with local service providers like Hargray, will transform broadband within the county, according to a press release from the county.

Knoll also acknowledged the work load he has shared during the past four years with Patrick Hill, assistant county administrator for Communications and Information Technology.

“We currently have four providers in Beaufort County,” said Hill. “Hargray and Spectrum are the biggest; Centurylink and Xfinity have very small pockets in the county. Hargray has been the most active in partnering with the county.”

Being able to access the internet has become a necessity for most residents, but it was never more obvious nor more important than when the entire country shut down March 15, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Likely the most critical issue was when it was realized that whole groups of students could not continue their education because they had neither the hardware nor access to the technology required.

In Beaufort County – like all educational facilities across the country and around the world – all learning shifted and took place online. That meant all K-12 district students had to be issued a district device, from laptop to iPad, depending upon the grade level and need. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it was further discovered that those families without access to Wi-Fi had to sit in the closest school parking lot to download or upload materials. Families that qualified financially were also able get mobile hotspots distributed by the district.

“The pandemic forcing telework and remote learning caused the county staff and elected officials to take a hard look at internet access and broadband within our community,” said Hill. “Beaufort County has a responsibility to its workforce and children to coordinate and support communication companies’ efforts to expand broadband coverage across the county.”

Red Cedar Elementary School Principal Kathleen Corley said the access shortfall was a problem.

“It was a big impact. Hargray helped us out a lot. They were able to get Wi-Fi to place a that didn’t have Wi-Fi, and then when we got the hotspots from the state, that helped some, and then the school district provided even more,” she said.

Mark Chauhan, the district’s technical services officer, noted the efforts made during the pandemic, also highlighting the challenges to education.

“The county as a whole has adequate broadband but there are areas seeded throughout that do not have the infrastructure available to all homes. Some of these more rural areas have little to no cellular service available, making the cellular MiFi hotspot option unusable for virtual learning,” Chauhan said. “The ultimate solution would be to have a true hard-wired broadband connection available at every residence in Beaufort County able to support virtual learning.”

While this particular check was earmarked for St. Helena Island and Big Estate Road in Sheldon North of the Broad, every area in the county is being or has been worked on, bringing that solution closer to reality.

“Approximately 90% to 95% of Beaufort County has broadband internet, and … we believe we are close to 100% south of the Broad River. Most of the areas not covered are in the rural areas of St. Helena and Seabrook,” Hill added.

Those locations south of the Broad River with recent and future work dates include Bellinger Bluff Road and Red Bluff (Bellinger Neck/Okatie), April 2022; Bufflehead Lane (Bluffton), March 2022; Lost Oaks Drive (Bluffton), March 2022; Old Haig Point Road (Daufuskie), May 2022

“The South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff has developed broadband coverage maps identifying unserved and underserved areas. Hargray, with the support of Beaufort County, applied for a Rural Broadband Grant from the Commerce Department in 2021, receiving $765,000 toward broadband buildouts,” Hill said. “Currently, the communications companies and South Carolina are finalizing coverage maps and applying for funding.”

In aid of getting Wi-Fi to all households, the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) is conducting a broadband internet survey.

The data collected through this survey will assist ORS in determining the need for residential high-speed, fiber-based internet in and around the community. Participating in this survey is important for the residents of Beaufort County because the state legislature will be allocating funding to counties based on the survey results. The more Beaufort County residents that take the survey, the better the opportunity for funding the county’s underserved areas.

Residents without high-speed internet can use local libraries to fill out the survey. The survey takes about 15 minutes, and participants must be 18 years of age or older to complete it. Completing the survey will help bring funds to the county for broadband expansion. To take the survey, visit https://bit.ly/ineedinternet.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.