In South Carolina, many children were unable to participate in online schooling when the global pandemic struck earlier this year. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of people in the Palmetto State could not receive telehealth services or work remotely because they lacked access to high-speed internet service.
“There is a lot of change coming with broadband, and I think COVID-19 really put an emphasis on broadband,” said Kathy Schwarting, the chief executive officer for Palmetto Care Connections.
Located in rural Bamberg County, Palmetto Care Connections links health care providers to patients in rural and underserved areas, through telehealth. In the last few years, the nonprofit has turned a lot of its mission to connecting broadband to rural communities across the state. More than half a million South Carolinians lack access to high-speed, reliable internet service, according to Palmetto Care Connections.
Schwarting said the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that “telehealth is essential and it’s part of our future, and broadband is necessary for everybody to have.”
“We've seen that there are a lot of patients that can't connect for lots of different reasons,” Schwarting said.
Many people don’t have the necessary technology, others do have the technology but cannot afford to pay for broadband internet. State lawmakers are trying to help. They recently approved a bill that lets electric co-ops lease out space on existing power poles to broadband providers. Then, providers can run high- speed internet lines into communities that need it.
Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, said fully expanding broadband coverage statewide may take three to five years.
“We think about rural and we say rural, but a lot of unserved areas could be just down the street; it may be that the lines go so far, but they need to go further,” Alexander said.
As a short-term solution, the state invested some $20 million of funds from the CARES Act into the deployment of hotspots. Another $30 million is allocated for the expansion of broadband, according to Alexander. He said once broadband lines are available, it is important that the service is affordable for everyone.
“Just having broadband is not enough,” Alexander said. “It doesn't do much good to have a product available if you can't afford to use it.”
Dr. Rick Foster, a consultant on population health and health equity for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said the business sector should step up and meet community needs by providing technology and resources.
“This is something they should be doing as good community partners,” Foster said. “That coverage and funding for broadband is going to serve many, many wonderful, important purposes.”
One important purpose is telehealth. Demand for telehealth services has been soaring amid the coronavirus pandemic. The South Carolina Telehealth Alliance reports there were 1.3 million telehealth visits between January and June.
“Now that we see that tele-health can have great value in a broader sense, as far as improving outcomes, reducing costs, we need to make sure that those who need it the most have access to it,” Foster said.