Federal funds could improve broadband access for residents of 13-county area

Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Chris Bailey of Comcast, one of a handful of companies that provide Internet service, works in the company's nerve center.

Area governments are working together in seeking federal money to pay for increased access to broadband or high-speed Internet access.

The CSRA Regional Commission reports that 54.5 percent of area households have no broadband access, according to data from ESRI Business Analyst.

Based on these findings, the commission and the CSRA Unified Development Authority are applying for federal stimulus funding to improve regional broadband access, said Andy Crosson, the commission's executive director.

They are applying for funds through the National Telecommunications Information Administration's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. The grant application is due March 15.

"I call it a fairly aggressive project in that all 13 counties in the region have agreed to work together to try to design a middle mile fiber optic ring that would get broadband access to rural areas, certainly underserved," Crosson said.

It will be a public-private partnership to reduce infrastructure costs and increase availability of service, said Lewis Foster, the IT manager for Columbia County.

Federal funding of up to 80 percent of the project cost is available. The project will provide broadband access to libraries, hospitals, community colleges, universities and public safety institutions, Crosson said.

"We're trying to work together as a community to stimulate some competition. You'd have multiple choices for the whole area as far as providers. Right now, we're limited," Foster said.

Many communities in the 13-county area still use dial-up Internet service. For areas that do have broadband access, the service is so expensive that average families can't afford it, Foster said.

"There's actually a tremendous amount of federal money for broadband. Our goal here ... is to serve rural America," said Bartel Kendrick, a spokesman for the Broadband Recovery Act.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act appropriated $7.2 billion in stimulus funds and instructed the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service and the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications Information Administration to expand broadband access across the nation. The goal is to increase jobs, spur investments in technology and infrastructure, and provide long-term economic benefits.

The Recovery Act has authorized the Federal Communications Commission to create a National Broadband Plan that ensures that all people in the United States have access to broadband capability, according to information at www.broadband.gov.

Broadband service provides higher-speed data transmission and access to the highest quality Internet services, such as streaming media, voice over Internet protocol and interactive service. Many of these services require the transfer of large amounts of data that might not be technically feasible via dial-up service providers.

Private providers already offering broadband in the Augusta and Aiken area include Comcast, Knology and Atlantic Broadband.

Broadband access in the Augusta-Aiken area

The CSRA Fibernet Cooperative project has determined the 13-county area is underserved by broadband because 40 percent of households or less are broadband subscribers. Twelve of the counties stand on their own as underserved. Overall, the entire 13-county area is underserved with 54.5 percent of all households in the region having no access to broadband.

County Adult population Broadband access* Percent adult population Adult population underserved Percent underserved

*Broadband access indicates DSL or cable access.

Source: Andy Crosson, executive director of the CSRA Regional Commission