FCC commissioner visits Warrenville (copy) (copy)

In this Aiken Standard file photo, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr snaps a photo of workers in Warrenville.

As schools are mothballed, businesses close, colleges move wholly behind a computer screen and cocktail hours are increasingly held at a distance and on couches, the need for digital connectivity has seemingly never been greater.

The novel coronavirus pandemic – more than 1,700 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have been reported in South Carolina alone – has upended societal norms, pushing countless workers, students and parents-turned-teachers online.

The virus outbreak has put internet access at "the top of the list," state Rep. Bill Taylor said Friday, "because broadband, having an internet connection, is now a critical need. I mean, this falls into the same category as having water, having electricity. And without this, you are literally in a desert of information."

Taylor, a Republican, represents S.C. House District 86, a largely rural region in Aiken County's northeast. It's not unusual, he said, for his constituents to leave home to make a call or get online.

But what was once a nuisance or inconvenience is now a potential liability.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday said broadband and telephone companies across the country reported network usage increases of up to 35% in recent weeks. Demand has surged in suburban, exurban and residential areas during the daytime – when people would otherwise be at work or when children would be in school.

No providers expressed concern about withstanding and sustaining the digital boom.

"It appears that our nation's communications networks are holding up very well amid the increase in traffic and change in usage patterns," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a Thursday statement.

"That said," he added, "we will continue to closely monitor the situation."

As of September 2018, thousands of Aiken County residents lacked access to even the most basic internet service, an issue accentuated by the health quagmire the U.S. now finds itself in.

Access in Aiken County is most prevalent in downtown Aiken, around the bypass, near the Savannah River Site and in the North Augusta region, including Augusta, Georgia, according to a study by the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Internet access all but disappears near Windsor, along Wagener Road and in the less-densely populated areas around Interstate 20.

"We're so far behind the curve, the internet curve, in Aiken County," Taylor said. "Kids can't do their schoolwork. Parents can't communicate."

Atlantic Broadband, one of several internet providers in the greater Aiken region, has opened all of its wifi hotspots to the public. AT&T, another provider, is offering two months of free service to new customers and is waiving overage fees, among other things.

A map of wifi hotspots across the state is available on the S.C. Department of Education's website.

"We know that many people are now working from home or have school-aged children who are now at home and must connect to the internet for online course work," said Heather McCallion, Atlantic Broadband's product and programming vice president. "Our new internet offerings are an affordable way for communities to stay connected at this challenging time."

S.C. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican, has previously told the Aiken Standard one of the most frequent calls he gets from constituents is about broadband access – or lack thereof.

"I mean, I'm a rural guy," Massey said earlier this year. "I see it."

"These people," Taylor said Friday, "when they are sequestered at home, have no lifeline for information."

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin