Beaufort County officials aim to bridge 'digital divide'

tbarton@islandpacket.comJanuary 31, 2014 

Jim Collette, chairman of the Greater Island Council Communications Task Force, opened the Beaufort County Community Engagement Kickoff Meeting of the Connect South Carolina State Broadband Initiative on Jan. 31, 2013, at Hilton Head Island Library. At the event, Beaufort County leaders gathered to discuss making improvements in broadband access to help attract technology businesses to the county.

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    Hargray's Chris McCorkendale discusses the broadband capabilities in the Lowcountry - specifically Hilton Head Island on Jan. 31, 2014. Tom Barton

A year after persuading wireless carriers to fill coverage gaps and boost service on Hilton Head Island, local officials have turned their sights to high-speed Internet access countywide.

Local and county government, school district and business officials gathered Friday on Hilton Head to discuss improvements to broadband Internet access that many argue is necessary to retain and attract Beaufort County businesses. The meeting was aimed at assembling a countywide team to assess the area's broadband needs, capacities and priorities.

The meeting was led by a task force of telecommunications experts formed by the Greater Island Council of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton. The task force has teamed with Connect South Carolina, a subsidiary of a nationwide nonprofit organization that helps communities expand broadband Internet access.

Connect was commissioned by the state to work with providers to create an interactive map of the state's broadband coverage and help communities plug gaps.

"Either you're connected or you're left behind," task force chairman Jim Collett said. "Improving broadband access, adoption and use is crucial to ensure the county's competitiveness in this connected global economy."

The countywide team, which is still being formed, would need about six months to complete its assessment, Collett said.

Access to affordable and reliable broadband service remains a challenge for many across the state, including in Beaufort County, according to Lindsay Conrad, community technology adviser for Connect.

Of the 27 percent of households lacking broadband service in Beaufort County, 30 percent said they did not see the need to connect, and 17 percent said it was too costly, according to a 2012 survey by Connect.

With much of today's world moving online, high-speed Internet access has become critical to educating children, staying involved in civic life, connecting with job opportunities and even getting medical care and paying monthly bills, Conrad said.

"By identifying service gaps and closings the digital divide, we can help create a better business environment, affordable health care, enhanced education and more efficient government," she said.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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