With dual project, County aims to boost web access for Southeast Richland

The County’s plans to bridge a digital divide in Southeast Richland are moving forward.

On Tuesday, County Council voted to use $85,000 from the County’s general fund to install two miles of fiber conduit in the area as work continues on the Southeast Richland Water & Sewer Systems Expansion Project.

Council’s vote is the first step toward helping many Southeast Richland residents gain broadband access.

Data from the Federal Communications Commission show that about 10,300 County residents do not have broadband, with the majority in Southeast Richland.

The COVID-19 health crisis has emphasized the need for internet access in the area, as many students in Southeast Richland cannot access school assignments online and vulnerable senior citizens cannot benefit from tele-medicine opportunities with health care providers.

“If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that access to fiber optics is critically important for students and seniors at this time,” said Councilwoman Dalhi Myers, who represents District 10.

When complete, the project could extend broadband access to more than 1,000 residents in Southeast Richland, potentially serving as a draw for other internet service providers to enter the area and use the County’s infrastructure in the future.

With the installation, Myers said, “We would be well down the road to making Richland County one of the first counties in South Carolina to have full fiber optic accessibility.”

After the first two miles of conduit are installed, the County anticipates an interested broadband service provider will take over the project and lay down the estimated 28 remaining miles of conduit.

Installing for fiber optic cables while the water and sewer project is underway points to potential operational and financial savings for the County, as the two utilities can be buried together. If the interested broadband provider picks up the project, the County could save more than $1 million in contracting fees.

The County has not set a date to begin broadband installation, which is expected to take about a month. Construction on the water and sewer project began April 15 and is slated for completion in summer 2021.