Pageland, South Carolina, a small rural town in Chesterfield County, is known for its watermelon. The town once billed itself as the “Watermelon Capital of the World” and still hosts an annual Watermelon Festival every summer that draws thousands of visitors each year. But these days something different is growing off the vine out of Pageland that is rejuvenating the region.
Spanning three rural counties in the north-central part of the state, the Lynches River Electric Cooperative (LREC) – a member-owned cooperative headquartered in Pageland – announced a partnership with North Carolina-based Fiber Optic Solutions in January of 2020 on the start of construction for a fiber-to-the-home network. Through its wholly-owned subsidiary RiverNet Connect, the “goal is to provide world-class Internet [access] to every house, on every dirt road that wants it and we won’t stop until we’ve done just that.”
High Speed Construction and Service
Having already deployed fiber to connect its electric substations, in June of 2019 LREC surveyed its members to gauge whether they wanted the co-op to extend the network and begin offering high-speed Internet service. Over 5,000 members responded to the survey indicating they were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea.
Two months later, the LREC Board of Trustees voted unanimously to bring fiber Internet service in phases to its members living in Chesterfield, Kershaw, and Lancaster counties. That was followed by an announcement in October of 2019 at LREC’s annual membership meeting that the co-op had created RiverNet Connect.
The 82-year-old cooperative, which currently serves 21,000 members, began building the fiber-to-the-home network in February of 2020. But, despite the challenges of working in the middle of a pandemic, by May of 2020 construction crews were deploying between 12 to 20 miles of fiber per week, keeping the cooperative on track to connect its first subscribers by early fall 2020. By the end of 2020, LREC had hung over 290 miles of fiber passing 6,000 homes across the co-op’s service area.
But before the Phase One work was complete, in the spring of 2020 RiverNet announced its service options and pricing. Residential customers can choose between a basic package that offered a symmetrical 300 Megabits per second (Mbps) connection for $60 a month or a symmetrical gig speed connection for $80 per month.
Subscribers can also get VoIP phone service for $25 per month and a Wi-Fi booster for an additional $10 per month.
Six months after announcing its prices, in September of 2020, RiverNet lit up its first subscriber who opted for RiverNet’s symmetrical gig speed service “so they can game, stream, and surf without lagging or buffering,” according to RiverNet’s official timeline posted on its website.
Even as RiverNet continues to expand the network to reach “every house, on every dirt road that wants it,” the community-minded co-op was eager to provide service to those who had yet to be connected. In a letter to members sent out in January of 2021, LREC President and CEO Brian Broughton wrote about how the cooperative’s mission is “to bring fiber Internet to every member and every home regardless of where you live.” Unfortunately, he wrote, “it will take time to achieve that goal so, in response to the urgent need we’re seeing now, in the middle of a global pandemic, we’ve created several free drive-in Wi-Fi locations for individuals in need of Internet access.”
The letter announced three community hotspot locations that would offer 300 Mbps speeds capable of supporting up to 40 devices at once between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Then, this past summer, Broughton announced that RiverNet would be participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program offering free home Internet service for “eligible families of K-12 students, Pell Grant recipients, those receiving Lifeline benefits … and individuals that experienced a substantial, documented loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020.”
In a letter to members announcing RiverNet’s participation in the EBB program Broughton wrote:
“It’s a fact that the quality of your home’s Internet access has a direct impact on a student’s success. Our offer of free broadband Internet will keep the students in the communities we serve connected and learning. It’s more apparent than ever that broadband is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity for everyone.”
Meanwhile, as RiverNet continues toward fully building-out the network to serve its entire membership, on August 30 of this year, it celebrated connecting its 2,000th subscriber, according to RiverNet’s extremely active Facebook page.
That number is all but certain to grow as word travels fast on social media. RiverNet’s Facebook page is replete with rave reviews like this post from LREC member Greg Sutton:
We had 2 phones streaming high school volleyball, a movie streaming on the firestick, the PS5 running the background, another PS4 in the bedroom running, two smart watches all attached to the Wi-Fi. I can’t get it to buffer and I am trying!! I am beyond amazed!!!! It downloaded updates for Rec Room, Fortnite and Dead by Daylight in 5 minutes. This used to take all day on ‘the other provider’ just for Fortnite … RIVERNET ROCKS!!!
The launch of RiverNet is a notable development for those in favor of local Internet choice in South Carolina, as the Palmetto State is one of 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that either outright ban, or make it exceedingly difficult, for local governments to build and operate municipal broadband networks. South Carolina currently does not have a single municipal broadband network in existence. Until state lawmakers remove the barriers to municipal broadband, electric cooperatives are on a too-short list of legal pathways for publicly-owned broadband networks.
You can read more about the legal barriers to municipal broadband in South Carolina here.
Header image of Pageland, SC sign courtesy of WikiMedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Inline map of Pageland, SC courtesy of Wikipedia
Inline map of LREC service territory courtesy of Lynches River Electric Cooperative
Inline image of free community hotspot sign courtesy of RiverNet Connect