Claflin meeting takes aim at internet deserts

Nov 18, 2023

Keith Shoates, chief operation officer of Student Freedom Initiative, speaks during a forum at Claflin University.


Representatives from the Orangeburg community and the Student Freedom Initiative discussed a lack of internet accessibility during a Nov. 13 community meeting held on Claflin University’s campus.

SFI is a nonprofit that aims to shorten the wealth gap by focusing on education. Keith Shoates, chief operation officer of SFI, gave a presentation on how the digital divide affects historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions and their students.

“As soon as we focus just on what's being invested into the students, we will all tend to start doing the right thing,” Shoates said. “We’re impacting our children.”

82% of HBCU campuses are in broadband deserts, meaning that connectivity is limited both on campus and for the surrounding community. This includes Orangeburg.

“Yes, it's about Claflin, yes it's about South Carolina State,” Shoates said. “But the communities ... both schools support are in that desert right along with them.”

Eric Ham, chief information officer for S.C state, backed up the need for connectivity for all schools.

“There are areas within this community that are, when they say internet desert, if you look at the map, it’s just completely brown,” Ham said. “It’s ridiculous trying to get students connected when we knew they wouldn’t be able to connect.”

This is a setback that harms the education and health of the community, Ham said.

“What else can you do to improve the community so that our students don’t start 20 years behind?” Ham said.

When Internet2, a research-based high-speed connectivity service, came into effect, it bypassed Orangeburg. Shoates and Claflin President Dwaun Warmack agreed this was a setback for the university.

“It’s a fundamental building block of getting on the R2 R1 status,” Shoates said, “If you can’t get connected to the broadband, the high-speed internet, you can't get to the real money.”

SFI provides grant dollars and grant writers to institutions and communities needing help with the competitive process of applying for funding.

“If we can address this issue of the digital divide using this once-in-a-lifetime set of resources, we can fundamentally change what's been going on,” Shoates said. “Let me be clear, there is no catch.”

Shoates said the community has a strong set of advocates who should use the power of numbers to make their needs heard.

“I can break a pencil very easily; I can't break 50 pencils rolled together,” Shoates said.

Shoates emphasized engaging with community polling and meetings so representatives have a visual of their community needs.

Shoates referenced the affordable connectivity program, something for which Pell Grant-eligible students are automatically eligible. This fund would run out if not backed by representatives.

“It would help your elected representatives if they could say ‘You know what? Here's who would be impacted.’” Shoates said.

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