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Anderson broadband project follows in footsteps of rural electrification

Molly Hulsey //March 2, 2022//

Anderson broadband project follows in footsteps of rural electrification

Molly Hulsey //March 2, 2022//

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(Map/South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff)Anderson County is not one of the most broadband-deprived areas of the state. In Anderson County’s municipal areas, internet customers are moving along at high (or at least, moderate) speed. Still, thousands of households and scores of businesses suffer the frustrations of slow internet service.

The majority of the county benefits from moderate broadband speeds with pockets close to the city of Anderson and Greenville County seeing even faster access. But in Honea Path, Pendleton, Williamston and rural locations farther afield, communities packed with more than 200 households per square mile lack any broadband access, according to 2021 maps from the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff’s Broadband Office.

“When I think of broadband access for Anderson County, I always think of two Anderson Counties,” said S.C. Sen. Mike Gambrell, adding that his own home and that of many of his constituents lack access. “Lots of folks in Columbia take for granted that every county and every city has got broadband.”

Upcountry Fiber, a new partnership developed by the Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative and West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative seeks to bridge this “the digital divide” through one of its inaugural forays into the Upstate: a $15 million, 2,800-mile broadband expansion to Anderson enclaves with little or no access to high-speed internet.

 Close to 7,000 households and businesses will be put on the grid, according to the company.

The project dovetails with the provider’s ongoing $175 million 2022 expansion project including Pendleton, Pierceville and Townville in Anderson County. Inroads were made in Pickens and Oconee County last year following the creation of Upcountry Fiber, when the Abbeville-based organization pledged to bring broadband to 1,800 square miles across the Upstate, including Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg counties, through a $150 million investment.

“We feel like at this particular time, we are positioned better than we ever have been to make a difference in the lives of our citizens,” Mark Williamston, chief information officer for Anderson County, said at a Jan. 21 press conference about the project. “I think we can all recognize in today’s fast-paced world, that broadband is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. It has and will continue to become an essential utility, one no less important than water or power.”

Anderson County officials reiterated the importance of broadband access for health care, education and overall quality of life.

“For many years, my constituents have been reaching out to me, asking me to help them find broadband service for their home, business and it’s always been very frustrating not being able to help them, but that’s about to change,” said Anderson County Councilor Brett Sanders, who represents Starr, Iva and several of the county’s most unserved areas. “It won’t happen overnight, but working with Upcountry Fiber, we’ll find ways to be able to serve those people who would otherwise not be able to have proper internet service.”

Jim Lovinggood, president and CEO of Upcountry Fiber, said the collective will launch the project in the Pendleton/LaFrance area this month. The Piercetown project is slated to begin in late spring or early summer, followed by Townville in late summer or early fall.

A feasibility study conducted by Powdersville’s Palmetto Engineering highlighted these communities among thousands of unserved and underserved households and businesses in the county.

“We’re excited about doing additional projects as soon as more funding becomes available,” Lovinggood said.

So far, Upcountry Fiber has installed more than 300 miles of high-speed fiber in Pickens and Oconee counties, serving more than 1,200 households, businesses and schools. The collaborative currently employs more than 200 people.

Jeff Wilson, president and CEO of the West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative, compared the push for broadband to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act in 1936.

“Blue Ridge at that time, in 1940, when they were formed, there was no electricity in the rural parts of the Upstate,” said Wilson. “They worked with the government securing low interest loans and they were able to go out and provide electricity to those (areas). Ten years later, in the ‘50s, the same thing happened with the telephone cooperatives. It was such a success getting those low interest loans and the cooperatives were able to go out and serve.”

The rollout of these utilities across the Upstate helped lay the groundwork for Upcountry Fiber’s public-private partnership today, he said, as the utility puts to use state and federal infrastructure funding and collaborates with school districts, county governments and rural water districts.

“We feel that with the help of the state, and any funding we get at the federal level, we could really move this project along very fast,” Wilson said.