If living through the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s this: We need the internet as badly as we need food, shelter and safety.
The pandemic also revealed just how lacking South Carolina’s broadband access is in rural areas. When quarantine hit, employees were sent home to work. Students had school online. Doctor’s appointments and job interviews took place via the internet. What many people saw as a convenient solution was impossible for others.
College of Arts and Sciences student Felix Mitchell is working to improve the lives of those South Carolinians living without internet access.
Mitchell is a sophomore studying French and geography. An unlikely pairing at first glance, the two disciplines have more crossover than you might think.
“Languages, natural and constructed, are really what interest me,” Mitchell says. “Geography slots into the study of languages nicely when studying the places in which specific phonemes, dialects, and slang exist and how they change. As I continue to study both areas, I intend to weave them together more and more.”
That crossover between language and geography landed Mitchell an internship with the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff working on the Broadband Infrastructure Program.
Mitchell’s task is to answer the question, “Where is there not access to the internet?”
“Answering this question is not as simple as the question itself,” Mitchell says. “The places without internet are the places where money needs to be sent to then get access.”
Geography courses teach the perfect skill set for this type of internship. Any time a question with “where” is asked, geography is around the corner. Cartography — map making — is a big part of the work to identify where internet access is lacking.
But it’s the French element that is a bit less obvious. Though they’re not speaking the language directly, Mitchell is using practices they’ve learned while studying in the French program.
“Much of my language study is spent learning how to learn. The processes I’ve developed there influence how I pick up new skills and apply them in every aspect of my life.”
There’s work to be done
Whether spoken or written, online or in print, we are constantly engaged in some form of communication. The U.S. mail system delivers letters, telephones allow synchronous conversations, and the internet allows all of that, and more, instantly, Mitchell says.
Without internet access, people are left behind.
Jim Stritzinger is director of the newly formed SC Broadband Office. He’s been studying rural internet access for years and says almost 8 percent of homes in the state — nearly 200,000 — lack reliable broadband access.
“Those without quality internet have had an awful time. They’ve lost jobs, missed out on homework assignments and been unable to visit the doctor,” he says. “In short, they’ve probably lost at least one full meaningful year in their lives. Over time, the cost is incalculable.”
Stritzinger says broadband mapping is as complex as it is necessary. Its analysis involves incredible amounts of data and calculations. But in the end, the maps need to be beautifully designed and easy for the public to understand.
That’s where Mitchell comes in.
“Felix has made a great addition to our team at the SC Broadband Office,” Stritzinger says. “Their analytical skills are awesome, and they have made quick work of some really complicated things.
“Over the summer, we’ve been working to build broadband maps for the other Southeastern States so that we can have benchmarks for comparison for South Carolina. Felix has been an integral part of that.”
For now, Mitchell plans to continue learning in the classroom and in the field. Whether they’ll continue to graduate school is not yet clear, but they do know they’ll continue to weave together what they’ve learned so far.
“I hope to have a solid idea of what it looks like to apply what I’ve learned in the classroom to a concrete issue,” Mitchell says.
This story was part of the College of Arts and Sciences Fall 2021 alumni magazine. To read more stories from this magazine, visit go.sc.edu/CASMagazine.