Upcountry Fiber receives federal grant

By Jason Evans
Staff Reporter

COUNTY – The future of a partnership between Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative and WCFIBER looks bright, thanks to a $12.18 million federal grant designated by the South Carolina Broadband Office (SCBBO).

The two entities launched Upcountry Fiber in 2021 to provide access to broadband internet to underserved areas of Pickens County.

Officials made the funding announcement at the Pickens County Airport Monday afternoon.

“It’s important that we celebrate our victories and that’s exactly what we’re here to do,” Pickens County Council Chairman Chris Bowers said.

For Pickens County to continue to be “a place for our current and future generations, we have to continue to invest in modernization of our infrastructure,” he said. Regarding high-speed internet, “there are many areas here in Pickens County that are underserved or not served at all,” Bowers said, knowledge that was underscored “so truly” during the COVID-19 pandemic and the virtual schooling and work meetings that are a part of it.

“It became painfully obvious,” he said.

In addition to the federal grant, Upcountry Fiber will invest an additional $5.57 million, bringing the total to $17,752, 301 for the project, a release said.

Thanks to the additional funding, by the end of 2025, more than 9,100 addresses will have access to broadband, Bowers said.

Once the construction project paid for mainly by the newly-announced investments is complete, Upcountry Fiber will have invested approximately $70 million since its inception in broadband construction to previously underserved areas of Pickens County, the release said.

Nearly 1,400 Pickens County underserved addresses identified by SCBBO that currently do not have access to broadband internet service are included in the grant, the release said. An additional 7,760 addresses surrounding them will be able to sign up for broadband internet service before the end of 2025 due to this investment, the release said. Residents will be notified of construction and order timelines in the coming weeks.

“Internet is in fact the foundation for the 21st century,” said Jim Stritzinger, Director of the SC Broadband Office. “All 50 states are currently going through an infrastructure build.”

Prior to June of 2020, “the state of South Carolina had never made an investment in broadband before,” he said.

“Not a penny,” Stritzinger said.

The Upcountry Fiber project is “a whopper,” Stritzinger said.

His office is committing $21.4 million to the total project and Upcountry Fiber has committed to $10 million to the project.

“I want to do a special shoutout to Pickens County because things like this just don’t happen,” he said. “You’re all to be commended for getting in early and setting that strategic plan.”

The county has a separate $400,000 commitment to the project “to build some special piece-parts that are very needed,” Stritzinger said.

The total project is $35 million, he said.

“It’s going to connect 3,087 housing units…and over 330 businesses,” Stritzinger said. “It’s a big project. We don’t take ona project like this lightly.”

County Council Vice-Chair Roy Costner said county council recognized that internet access was a significant issue in the county.

“Those conversations started before Covid,” he said. “So when Jim (Stritzinger) comes along and starts talking about how this is going to work, we were just cheerleaders in the front row going ‘we’ve got to have a conversation.’”

The public-private partnership represents “all these people coming to the table at the right time to do the right thing for the people,” Costner said.

“Which is the coolest thing that I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Costner often hears from kids in his community about their struggle for internet access.

“It matters,” he said. “It’s not just numbers. The lives that you’re truly helping, is extraordinary.”

Rep. Davey Hiott said a question he’s often heard is “When are we going to get some internet in this county?”

“I’m here to say today that hopefully today is going to be the end of it,” Hiott said.

High-speed internet will make the area “even better for the folks who live here,” he said.

“It’s a great day in South Carolina, a great day in Pickens County,” Hiott said.

Upcountry Fiber’s Jeff Wilson said the partnership was formed through West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative and Blue Ridge Electric’s desire “to serve their members.”

“There was a great need,’ Wilson said. “Broadband internet is an equalizer to help these people in the rural areas, that live and work here, to have opportunities for better healthcare, access to jobs, to education and information through this investment.”

Upcountry Fiber’s Jim Lovinggood said the grants are very important in pushing the project forward.

“These are very capital-intensive projects,” he said. “They take a long time to build. They take a lot of money.”

Since the project began, the partnership has built over 2,800 miles of fiber, connecting almost 19,000 people who did not have access to internet services before that, Lovinggood said.

“We’re very proud of that,” he said. “It’s something that’s life-changing. It’s transformational. We also know we have more work to do. These grants help us do exactly that.”


Subscribe Today or Login