Brendan Carr, FCC, ABB

Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr visited Warrenville last week. He met with Atlantic Broadband crews and discussed broadband access, among other things.

Brendan Carr, one of several leaders at the Federal Communications Commission, last week said his agency is sharply focused on expanding broadband access across the country and closing what he called the "digital divide."

Carr, a FCC commissioner, said amplifying access to broadband is "the top priority for us at the FCC right now."

Millions of Americans, Carr continued, don't have access to high-speed or sufficient internet. It's a hurdle faced locally, which Carr recognized as he spoke to workers in Warrenville.

As of September 2018, nearly 12,000 Aiken County residents lacked access to even the most basic internet service, according to a study prepared by the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics.

S.C. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican, in early January described connectivity – or lack thereof – as a "huge issue." At the time, Massey likened internet access to basic infrastructure, roads and bridges, and said it's a key component to economic development.

"It's just becoming part of everyday life," the senate majority leader said.

Carr last week said internet dead-zones tend to "cluster" in rural areas; Massey had similar things to say, specifically pointing to the greater swath he represents.

Internet access in Aiken County is strong, upward of 100 megabits per second for downloads, in the downtown Aiken area, past the bypass and in the greater North Augusta and Savannah River areas. Service dwindles north of Wagener Road, north and east of Williston, and on both sides of I-20 leaving the county.

The FCC has "engaged in a number of efforts" to shrink the digital divide, according to Carr

The first: regulatory reform.

"We've been trying to update, modernize the permitting processes to make it easier to get more broadband in hard-to-serve communities," the commissioner said.

The second: funding.

FCC commissioner visits Warrenville (copy)

Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr snaps a photo of workers in Warrenville last week.

"We have a $10 billion a year fund called the Universal Service Fund," Carr explained, "and we're in the process of reorienting that to support deployment in truly unserved areas."

Running one mile of fiber can cost $30,000. And in rural areas, that mile could only connect a few people. That presents a tough choice for companies looking to recoup costs and make money.

The percentage of Americans that don't have broadband, Carr said, narrowed almost 20 percent last year. He called it progress – but with a caveat.

"There's a long tail when you look at closing this digital divide," the commissioner said, adding, "We just got to keep the hammer down."

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin