ABBEVILLE

From gun control and abortion to the climate and immigration policy, finding divisive political issues is as simple as a quick online search.

But the simplicity of actually using the internet for that purpose or any other — still remains elusive for a pocket of our population, particularly in rural parts of the country, creating barriers for economic development, educational equality, health care delivery and public safety response.

“I think you’re a generation away from seeing a major population shift if you don’t have internet in some of these areas. I mean, if Abbeville did not have internet access, or if McCormick didn’t have it, you’d be a generation away from seeing some significant demographic changes,” said Jeff Wilson, CEO of West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative, better known as WCTel.

Wilson said bringing modern technology to underserved areas has always been WCTel’s core mission — and the pace of growth has been dizzying to him.

“Six years ago when I got here, our top speed was 30 megabit, that’s what we were offering. Our lowest speed that we’ll offer today is 200 megabit, and it’s symmetrical, meaning upload and download,” Wilson said.

“Because of the way we’ve invested in fiber, it is basically future-proof because it is all pure fiber from when you leave this office right up to the customer’s house.”

A February report from the American Broadband Initiative — a project of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — found that 24 million people lack access to broadband internet service, and 80% are in rural communities.

Include more than 660,000 South Carolinians to that tally, according to Broadband Now, which tracks broadband data and accessibility nationwide.

State lawmakers say the service gap needs to be closed rapidly. In April, the House voted 112-0 in favor of legislation to create the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, program.

Under the provision, grants of up to $2 million would be made available through the Rural Infrastructure Authority to providers for the expansion of broadband internet into remote areas.

H. 3780 is ready to be taken up by the Senate when the General Assembly convenes in January.

“Broadband no longer is a luxury, but a necessity. It becomes necessary for basic communications. Communities without it are being left behind. This issue disproportionately affects the rural areas. It impacts communities in a variety of ways, No. 1 being education and as you might expect health care, economic development and quality of life,” state Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, said on the House floor in April. “It’s time that we adopt this and get broadband to our rural communities are so desperately in need of it.”

How exactly is broadband defined? Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 laid out its definition of “advanced telecommunications capacity” as “high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video telecommunications using any technology.”

Since 2015, the FCC has used speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload as its minimally acceptable standard, up from a 4 Mbps/1 Mbps in 2010.

Between 2013 and 2017, FCC statistics show, the percentage of rural areas in the U.S. with access to fixed broadband speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps has climbed from 47.6% to 75.7%.

On the state level, 98.2% of residents in urban areas have access to those speeds, while 76.1% do in rural locations.

“The ‘digital divide’ is a term used to describe a gap between ‘information haves and have-nots,’ or in other words, between those Americans who use or have adequate access to telecommunications and information technologies and those who do not. Whether or not individuals or communities fall into the “information haves” category depends on a number of factors, ranging from the presence of computers in the home, to training and education, to the availability of affordable internet access,” a Jan. 9 report by the Congressional Research Service said.

When WCTel entered the internet business in 1995, Wilson said, it was an extension of company founder John McAllister’s commitment to ensure remote areas could stay connected — whether by telephone or, today, digital means.

“We’re not private equity, we’re not going to sell out. We’re building a future for our community, and we have a vested interested in all the communities we serve, that they’re successful, and we think fiber is part of having that real infrastructure that allows areas to grow and prosper,” Wilson said.

For Greenwood County, finding ways to connect businesses with high-speed internet has been happening for almost a decade.

In 2012-13, Connect South Carolina did a local analysis to determine current and future connectivity issues. Greenwood Partnership Alliance CEO Heather Simmons Jones is a former leader of the state’s federally designated program for broadband access.

“In this position, we went into counties, Greenwood being one, and looked at access, adoption and affordability,” Jones said. Some of the findings “have been remedied, some not. Some were really not within reach or the community’s control.”

Among the recommendations that came out of that study were:

• Use of U.S. Department of Agriculture funding to support the buildout of community broadband.

• Analyze local policies and ordinances to support the expansion of infrastructure.

“The costs associated with obtaining permits and leasing pole attachments and rights-of-way are one of the most expensive cost functions in a service provider’s plans to expand or upgrade service, especially in rural markets where the ration of poles to households goes off the charts,” Connect South Carolina concluded.

Jones said the study led to direct economic success in the region.

“During this process, we identified that Piedmont CMG in Abbeville and Greenwood didn’t have appropriate speeds to send their CAD files. We worked with incumbent and telephone co-op’s until we came up with a solution. This example not only saved jobs, but allowed them to grow,” she said.

And in 2017, Monti Inc. and Northland Communications agreed to split the cost of running fiber optic lines to the manufacturer’s Airport Road headquarters, supplying it with more than 1 gigabyte of capacity, allowing for the seamless transfer of customer schematics.

In rural America and across the Upstate, few industries are as dependent on reliable broadband internet as agribusiness.

The American Farm Bureau has identified it as a top priority nationwide.

“Access to broadband is essential for farmers and ranchers to follow commodity markets, communicate with their customers, gain access to new markets around the world and, increasingly, to ensure regulatory compliance,” a bureau white paper says.

Barney Gambrell, chairman of the state Farm Bureau’s Abbeville chapter, agreed.

“It is definitely important to us in every aspect, no matter what type of farming you do,” he said.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.