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Columbia Business Monthly

Connecting the World

Apr 01, 2024 10:22AM ● By Genna Contino

Four years ago, Sandy Davis received a call from a guy named Dave.

“Is there a lot of shrimping off the coast?” he asked the president of Myrtle Beach’s Regional Economic Development Corporation. “How far out is the continental shelf?

While Davis answered his questions, she didn’t know he worked for a company called Google. She also didn’t know he had an idea that would transform Myrtle Beach into a global internet hub.

That first phone call evolved into meetings, contracts, and eventually breaking ground on a data center that would connect South Carolina to South America with a subsea cable, spearheaded by Google. 

The move quickly captured another tech giant’s attention. Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, jumped in with plans to build a cable from the same site soon after, connecting Myrtle Beach to Spain.

“That really put Myrtle Beach on the map,” said Barbara Royal, executive director of eMYRge, a business incubator and coworking space. 

Data center and networks provider DC BLOX runs Myrtle Beach’s cable landing station at the International Technology and Aerospace Park near Market Common. Opened in October, the facility is proofed for hurricane winds and can host up to five subsea cables.

The cable resembles a garden hose connecting two land-based stations to carry telecommunication signals across the seabed, powering and strengthening the global internet service. The cable along the ocean floor serves not just as physical infrastructure, but also as a foundation for the Grand Strand economy's blossoming tech industry. 

There are two other things that helped Myrtle Beach win over big tech: an airport with 50 nonstop destinations and strong Wi-Fi. 

Myrtle Beach has 100 percent broadband access, according to city officials, and a look at a national broadband map using data from the Federal Communications Commission confirms this. If you zoom in on South Carolina, the Grand Strand stands out in green while a sea of yellow and red swallows the Pee Dee and lower coastline. 

Ken Carnesi, a founder who owns tech companies in Myrtle Beach and Washington, D.C., said the Grand Strand got full fiber-optic internet before it was even available in D.C. 

“There's actually a lot of really good infrastructure there,” Carnesi said. 

But it took a while – and some pressure on local leadership – to get to this point, he said. 

Carnesi is the founder of Anaptyx, a Myrtle Beach-based Wi-Fi provider for municipalities, hotels, resorts, and condos. Nearly 10 years ago, a large hotelier hired Anaptyx to install high speed internet, but Ocean Boulevard had no fiber optic cables to transmit it. 

“I kept trying to push, and the town just doesn't seem to care about tearing up the road and disrupting traffic and everything like that. It'll make tourists unhappy,” Carnesi said. “Like, yeah, but you're going to have this old school copper cable in the ground and you're never going to bring yourself into the 21st century.”

After eventually finding a solution to Myrtle Beach’s Wi-Fi woes, Carnesi soon started his D.C.-based business, DNS Filter. During the tech boom of 2021, the cybersecurity startup raised the third highest Series A funding round of all the cybersecurity startups in the world, racking in $30 million from a New York-based venture capital firm.

It was the perfect public relations opportunity for Myrtle Beach to boast about his success story, but no one from city or state government seemed to notice. 

“They seem to have zero care that I’m a resident,” Carnesi said. “Or even know that I did this stuff. There just doesn’t seem to be much support. All they think about is hotels and tourism, is kind of what it feels like.”

But Myrtle Beach’s Chief Innovation Officer Howard Waldie argues the city is evolving. Hired in 2022 as the first in his role, Waldie is tasked with getting the public sector up to speed with the private sector, hoping to further enrich an industry that has thrived organically thus far. 

One initiative Waldie is working on is the Living Lab program, which will bring “smart city” technology to Myrtle Beach. This includes things like sensors on trash cans that inform public waste management when it’s time for pickup or using technology to better streamline 311 calls. 

Through the program, Myrtle Beach will host 25 founders across the country to serve as a guinea pig community for their smart city startups – a mutually beneficial agreement for the involved parties. 

“Myrtle Beach has fully embraced these companies and this industry,” Waldie said. “We want Myrtle Beach to be that test bed for the state of South Carolina.”

To keep growing its private tech sector, Myrtle Beach and entrepreneur groups like eMYRge can look to Greenville as a South Carolina tech success story. Member companies of NextGEN boasted nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2023 according to the entrepreneurial network’s impact report.

NextGEN Executive Director Eric Weissmann attributes the success to the branding of the StartupGVL program, a support network he’s involved with that helps founders grow their businesses. The City of Greenville provides financial support and helps with marketing and media outreach.

Creating a generic, universal brand makes “you appear a lot larger than you are to the outside world,” Weissmann said. “When you look at Myrtle Beach, when you look at Columbia, and you look at Charleston, they’re envious of the fact that we’re organized.”

Measuring success in Myrtle Beach’s tech sector is hard to do at this point as there’s not a lot of data available yet. 

“That’s the big thing we’re working on, right?” said Royal. “The big economic development piece.”

We can, however, look at individual projects and events to get an idea of the size and scope of what’s to come in the Grand Strand. For example, the subsea cable project created $90 million in capital investment. 

In August, the Myrtle Beach Convention Center will hold the largest tech conference in the state: SaaSCONN. The local Chamber of Commerce is advertising the event as a way to establish Myrtle Beach and South Carolina as the SaaS (software as a service) industry capital of the eastern U.S.

Beyond smart cities, Waldie says the city is working on including tech in its workforce development and K12 programs to build and retain a local talent pipeline. But it will take collaboration, he said, from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to reach success.

“It’s going to be a minute before seeing that economic impact,” Waldie said. “But we’re on our way.”