Rural South Dakota Needs Broadband

Rural residents in pockets of South Dakota still don’t have access to an important tool that many Americans take for granted—high-speed Internet.

Expansion of broadband infrastructure to those without service is a top priority of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, which has worked on this issue with the National Corn Growers Association for nearly a decade.

Steady gains are being made and more projects are on the horizon. Although expanding service is a time-consuming and expensive project, time is of the essence. Farmers need high-speed Internet to operate effectively and efficiently with today’s modern technology. Their children need it to enhance their educational opportunities, particularly at a time when COVID-19 threatens to disrupt traditional classroom learning.

Vernon Brown, vice president of marketing & community relations at SDN Communications, looks forward to the day when everyone has access to high-speed Internet.

“What we saw in the ’30s with electrification was the President and Congress making a decision that everyone would have electricity. The same with the telephone,” Brown says. “We haven’t done that with broadband. My hope is with the coronavirus pandemic that we’ll be able to do that.”

$16,000 per mile for fiber optics

Cost has been a major roadblock to broadband expansion. SDN Communications, a broadband service provider whose territory includes 76 percent of the state’s geography, reports that it costs $16,000 per mile on average to install fiber. That’s why federal and state money is necessary.

Between 2013 and 2017, the state’s rural telecommunications companies invested nearly $392 million in fiber optic lines, switches, equipment, buildings and other long-term assets, according to a report from the South Dakota Dashboard and the South Dakota Telecommunications Association. That report estimates that while it costs an average of $25.54 per resident to install fiber optic lines in Sioux Falls, the average cost per resident rises to $3,571 in rural South Dakota.

Getting high-speed Internet to rural areas has been a priority for Gov. Kristi Noem. Earlier this year, she and the South Dakota Legislature approved $5 million to help businesses improve broadband services in underserved areas. The state money will be combined with $6.5 million in pandemic relief funding from a federal program.

In addition to that $11.5 million in grants, telecoms in South Dakota will invest approximately $18.5 million of their own money in projects, resulting in roughly $30 million worth of projects. That’s on top of $5 million that South Dakota legislators approved last year.

Brown says SDN, which is owned by 17 independent broadband companies, pays 50 percent of the construction costs on broadband projects in its territory. Extending broadband to all reaches of the state is no easy task. The remaining unserved areas of South Dakota are more-sparsely populated. In the Black Hills, projects are greatly complicated because of granite.

Modern farming needs broadband

Rural broadband is an essential tool for modern agriculture. Farmers need to be able to do business online, such as working with crop insurance companies and uploading data in a data-driven world. They use precision agriculture techniques to determine how much fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides they need to use.

Agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry and yet a lack of high-speed Internet prevents many farmers from reaching maximum efficiency. They need that tool in their diverse toolbox.

A number of broadband expansion projects are underway. Valley Telecommunications Cooperative will use a $9.5 million federal grant through the USDA’s ReConnect program to install a fiber network in Brookings, Kingsbury and Moody counties, reaching 1,750 rural households, 27 farms, 17 businesses and one critical community facility. That includes the Highway 14 corridor in northeast South Dakota, which is considerably underserved.

Kaye Vander Vorst, Valley’s marketing and public relations director, says the cooperative constructed a building in Volga and is constructing another one in De Smet. They connected the city of Volga to broadband over the winter and are now connecting Lake Preston and Arlington. The grant will allow Valley to fill in the rural areas between those communities.

The cooperative is doing engineering on the project this summer and expects to begin installing fiber optic lines next spring. In some areas, there may be only one subscriber per square mile, Vander Vorst says, so it’s challenging to determine the most cost-effective route. Residents along the route could be connected late near year or in spring of 2022.

“A lot depends on the weather,” Vander Vorst says. “We’re doing signups now; there are maps in De Smet and Volga.”

Valley also has a project in the works in the Flandreau area, which is a new network for the cooperative, and received about half a million dollars from the governor’s Connect South Dakota fund to serve that area.

Projects reaching farms, students

Golden West Telecommunications is also busy with upgrades and expansions. The cooperative’s network covers 14,000 miles, enough to go from Wall to Hong Kong and back, CEO Denny Law says. 10,000 of those miles are now fiber optics.

“Hopefully, within 5 to 10 years, we’ll be 100 percent fiber,” he says.

Golden West has been aggressive in replacing copper lines with fiber optics, undertaking $135 million worth of construction projects over the past five years. This year, it is replacing its entire Plankinton exchange area, which includes the city and rural areas. More than 50 miles of line is being replaced.

“We’ve been doing projects like that every year for the last 10 years,” Law says. “Now, 65 percent of our entire network is fiber optic.”

Golden West also has a project underway in rural areas around Dell Rapids, Baltic and Trent.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close last spring, Golden West fired up 50 wi-fi hotspots in most of the towns it serves so that students who don’t have high-speed Internet at home would have access in a hotspot, which was typically a school or church parking lot. Those hotspots remain active. The cooperative also worked with particular school districts to connect homes of students who didn’t have high-speed Internet.

The pandemic raised awareness of the need for rural broadband for virtual classes and communication, the need for telehealth services and to prepare for the uncertainty of what’s ahead.

Although there’s a great need for broadband, the situation could be even worse. Rural South Dakotans have greater access to wired broadband telecommunications services than many people across the country, according to the report released by the South Dakota Dashboard and the South Dakota Telecommunications Association. More than 76 percent of customers who lived outside of the state’s major cities were able to subscribe to high broadband speeds, compared to 61 percent nationwide.

But that still leaves nearly one-fourth of rural residents without the service, which has become more of a necessity than a luxury. There’s a lot of work to be done to reach the remaining South Dakotans without broadband. The South Dakota Corn Growers Association is in regular contact with U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Rep. Dusty Johnson, who are strong supporters, and we’re working together to make that become a reality—the sooner the better.

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