South Carolina Weighs State-Wide Wireless Access in Broadband Plans

September 21 – The South Carolina Educational Broadband Service Commission is under pressure to develop an innovative solution for state-wide broadband access, but the clock is ticking.

Broadband Census South Carolina

This is the 15th of a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and broadband data, within each of the United States and its territories. Among the next profiles: Nebraska, Utah, and Virginia.

September 21 – The South Carolina Educational Broadband Service Commission is under pressure to develop an innovative solution for state-wide broadband access, but the clock is ticking.

The seven-person commission is scheduled to hold its first meeting on September 22 – and will have only four months thereafter to submit its plan to the Federal Communications Commission for transitioning a unique band of radio frequencies from its educational broadcasting service to wireless broadband.

The frequencies occupy the 2.5 Gigahertz (GHz) band of spectrum. This band is distinct from the much-talked-about 700 MHz band licensed to commercial broadcasters, and which is the subject of the transition to digital television scheduled to take place on February 19, 2009.

These 2.5GHz frequencies are reserved for educational organizations and institutions, but South Carolina is the only state in the nation with state-wide control of frequencies. In South Carolina, the spectrum is used by state-owned broadcaster ETV.

As ETV transitions to a more efficient digital broadcast by February 2009, a large portion of the 2.5 GHz band could be utilized by other broadcast technologies, including wireless broadband.

Although state officials in Columbia, the capital, have been engaged in the issues surrounding broadband spectrum, many questions remain about the efficacy of a state-wide wireless network and the best model for utilizing the frequencies.

It is still unclear whether the state government will be able to take advantage of its unique opportunity.

Many in South Carolina are concerned that the state government is not moving quickly enough to seize upon the opportunity presented by the 2.5 GHz spectrum.

”Of all the impacts we could have on education in South Carolina, better and more broadband to all our schools and communities is the biggest,” said State Rep. Dwight Loftis, serving District 19 in Greenville County.

“The leadership of South Carolina needs to move fast,” says Representative Loftis, “we have a deadline of January 19 and I’m afraid we’re not moving fast enough.”

Dr. Jabari Simama, vice president of community development at Benedict College, has also promoted the availability of broadband technology on the local level. He said that the economic development of communities in South Carolina depends upon affordable access. His series of conferences on “Broadband in Cities and Towns” have been a focal point for discussions on technology and economic development among South Carolina communities.

To meet the deadline for submitting a plan for the 2.5 GHz spectrum to the FCC, the South Carolina Broadband Technology and Communication Study Committee recommended the state undertake two studies.

One would assess the current state of broadband infrastructure in South Carolina and citizens’ access to it. The other would assess the best business model to move forward so that the state receives the most benefit from the newly opened spectrum.

To meet the first recommendation, the state briefly partnered with Connected Nation, Inc., a non-profit group that conducts broadband needs assessments and develops programs to improve connectivity. The group initially estimated that 94 percent of South Carolinians had access to broadband, but the state has not followed up for more in-depth studies.

Little has been produced in response to the recommendation to study the best uses of the 2.5 GHz spectrum, either. Meanwhile, the South Carolina Educational Broadband Service Commission has been tasked by the legislature to seek proposals that utilize the spectrum capacity through business models and then to choose the best business model and private sector partner for the state.

The Commission’s upcoming meeting in Columbia should shed more light on the process for South Carolinians concerned about improving broadband access and the state’s plan for the valuable spectrum.

“If we pass this [spectrum] on to the FCC it will be a great loss,” said Loftis. “South Carolina will lose an excellent opportunity to reach everyone in the state with broadband technology.”

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