County, Hargray bringing broadband internet service to rural Beaufort County

By Tony Kukulich

Beaufort County is partnering with internet service providers to expand the availability of high-speed internet service to all county residents.

“Right now, we estimate that 95 perent of the county has high-speed internet,” said Chris Ophardt, Beaufort County public information officer. “That 5 percent that’s left is north of the Broad River, the St. Helena and Seabrook areas, those rural areas.”

Broadband for Everyone, a joint initiative between the county and Hargray Communications, was designed to provide broadband internet service to the county’s unserved and underserved communities.

“We’re working with the county and state to determine the best areas where we can invest, including seeking funding to subsidize some portion of those costs, to bring broadband to them,” said Rich Knoll, director of business sales at Hargray Communications. “Ultimately the goal is to bring fiber services to areas that don’t receive minimum speeds today.”

According to Ophardt, the push to expand high-speed service was, until recently, left primarily to private corporations and market forces. There was little government involvement in the effort at any level. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that.

With people forced to work and attend school from home, the availability of high-speed internet service became critical for families in ways it had never been before. Local governments across the country were pressed to help expand service, but the cost to do so was prohibitively high. For example, the cost to bring broadband service to every resident of St. Helena is projected at $8.5 million.

For the internet service providers, expansion into rural areas with low numbers of customers is often financially untenable. In the wake of the pandemic, the federal government stepped in to make funding available through a variety of agencies to state and local governments.

“All of this is a partnership between the government and private corporations,” Ophardt said. “For us here in Beaufort County, we’re helping Hargray, Comcast and Spectrum, because we have all three (service providers) in the county, apply for grants through (the American Rescue Plan Act), through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), through the state, to get money to do these projects. We’re giving them data. We’re giving them expertise. We’re giving them endorsements. The money gets awarded directly to those companies. They build out, and we’re supposed to make sure they’re doing that.”

In 2021, the county helped Hargray secure a $765,000 grant from the Rural Broadband Grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce. That grant was used to expand service in portions of Seabrook, Lady’s Island, Okatie, St. Helena Island, Bluffton and Daufuskie Island. The county and Hargray plan to apply for a grant from the USDA to offset the cost of expanding high-speed internet service to more of St. Helena Island.

“It is an exciting time for Beaufort County,” said Patrick Hill, assistant county administrator Communications and Information Technology. “Residents in all areas, especially rural and older communities, will be wired into the commerce and educational resources of the internet.”

Not all of the funding is coming through government grants. Late last month, Knoll presented a $20,000 check to the county to be used for service expansion efforts on St. Helena Island and in Sheldon.

“We had some marketing dollars that we were able to allocate from our business side to Beaufort County to help with their residential initiative that we knew was very important to them,” Knoll explained.

As Beaufort County works with local broadband services providers to expand coverage to underserved areas, 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. Residents are urged to participate in the survey because funding will be allocated to counties based on survey results. Residents without high-speed internet can use local libraries to fill out the survey.

The survey takes about 15 minutes, and participants must be at least 18 years old. To complete the survey, visit https://bit.ly/ineedinternet.

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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