TRAVELERS REST, S.C. (WSPA) — As education went from the classroom to the kitchen table, a big problem was uncovered in South Carolina: More than 100,000 students didn’t have internet access at home.

Maria Martinez’s family was among them.

“I had WiFi,” said Martinez, who lives in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. “We just had it, but we had financial problems, so, you know, we didn’t have it for a while. And I told them that, and that’s when they gave me this,” she said, holding a Verizon WiFi hotspot.

Martinez picked up the hotspot from her son’s school.

“Service is good,” she said. “Sometimes it’s kind of slow a little bit, but, yeah, I can get used to that.”

Federal funding helped get internet in homes

The WiFi hotspot’s journey to Travelers Rest began in Washington D.C. with the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

A student learns at home thanks to hotspots distributed by his school (WSPA Photo)

More than $1 billion in federal funding flowed to South Carolina through the act. State lawmakers decided about $50 million would go toward a plan to distribute mobile hotspots and expand broadband internet access so students from kindergarten to college could learn remotely.

The Office of Regulatory Staff is in charge of implementing the project.

“There’s two issues with internet in South Carolina,” said Tom Allen, who is the ORS’ director of safety, transportation and telecommunications. “Number one is the adoption piece. That means people who’ve got access to [the internet] but maybe can’t quite afford it, and then we’ve got the accessibility issue.”

Of that $50 million dollars, nearly $30 million is going toward accessibility: expanding the wired infrastructure for broadband to homes it didn’t reach previously. Twenty million dollars went toward obtaining WiFi hotspots.

Reaching those most in need

To qualify to receive a hotspot, families with kids in school must a) not have internet access at home, and b) be at or below 250% of the poverty level.

“A family of four would qualify if they made around $65,000 or less,” Allen said.

The Greenville County School District, which is the largest in the state, has ordered more than 2,700. Dorchester District 2 in South Carolina’s Lowcountry received the most: more than 7,600.

A Pew Research study from 2018 found nearly one in five teens sometimes can’t finish homework because of the digital divide at home. While experts say this $50 million helps, it’s only a temporary solution for a larger problem that existed before the pandemic.

According to Allen, estimates put the number of households without access to broadband in South Carolina at 180,000, but he said it may be much higher.

“There have been some estimates that it could cost as much as $800 million to fully expand broadband services throughout the state,” Allen said.

‘Still processing hotspot orders’

About 400 hotspots extra hotspots are sitting in an office in Greenville County’s School District’s technology headquarters, but, according to the district’s executive director of education technology services Bill Brown, they were still getting new requests for hotspots five weeks into the school year.

Thousands of South Carolina students without internet access at home have received mobile WiFi hotspots (WSPA Photo)
Thousands of South Carolina students without internet access at home have received mobile WiFi hotspots (WSPA Photo)

“It could be that a circumstance has changed on them or they moved or they don’t have good internet access at the new place,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of reasons that it happens, but we’re still processing hotspot orders.”

He said overall, the hotspots are working well, with just about all of the county’s 77,000 students logging on to learn.

“It’s been very effective,” he said.

Martinez said they’ve been able to get internet access back in their home, but for a while, the hotspot literally kept her son in school.

“I didn’t have WiFi, and they knew about it,” she said. “They didn’t want him to be absent all the time because they do that … like, if you’re not online, you’re absent.”

A spokesperson for South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said that the distribution of the hotspots is going well, and they’ve procured additional funding to buy more devices for additional students. They also said this is a short-term solution.

“We support the funding of permanent broadband access for students and families who do not currently have access,” spokesperson Ryan Brown said. “It is also important that broadband is of high quality and that it is affordable to all.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.