While this has been an extraordinarily wet year in many parts of South Dakota, there are still large sections of our state that are virtual deserts. Maybe not the kind of deserts where dust storms raise havoc and tumbleweeds blow across dried ground, but “internet deserts” where broadband services are lacking or in some cases, almost non-existent.
Many places in our great state—large communities and small towns, ranch country and grain farms-have some of the best broadband service in the United States. Delivering this type of state-of-the-art service took years of planning and the investment of millions of dollars by internet providers all across the state.
But not all parts of South Dakota are lucky enough to have these types of high-grade services. In these “internet deserts,” thousands of businesses and families are finding themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide through no fault of their own.
In her first State of the State speech in January, Gov. Noem made the Connect South Dakota program a top priority. Her plan to make $5 million in grant funds available was approved by the Legislature and those funds were awarded to eight different internet providers who are investing an additional $6.4 million of private capital. All told, these eight projects will make broadband service available to nearly 5,000 homes and business in a variety of South Dakota locations.
Recently, Gov. Noem visited a ranch just east of Pierre to see first-hand how broadband service can be a game changer for everyday South Dakotans. Don and Becky Bergeson’s ranch is tucked in a series of rolling hills not far from the Missouri River. Because of the topography, the Bergesons can’t get a reliable cell phone signal and their internet service was almost non-existent. This was a hardship not only for their ranch operations, but it also presented a significant challenge to operate the convenience store and restaurant they own in Blunt more than 20 miles to the northeast.
But now, thanks to Venture Communications (based in Highmore, SD) and one of Gov. Noem’s Connect South Dakota grants, the Bergesons and several hundred other families in rural Hughes County will have reliable fiber optic broadband service both for today and well into the future. Their story is being replicated thanks to the Connect South Dakota program in places like Timber Lake, rural Mitchell, just outside Watertown and in northeastern Minnehaha County among other locations.
But the need for broadband doesn’t stop once the fiber is buried to the house or business. Currently, the standard for broadband service in the U.S. is 25 Mbps (Megabits per second) up and 3 Mbps down. This definition of broadband was approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. However, consumer broadband demand has been increasing by an average of 21 percent annually. At that rate, most consumers will be needing 250 Mbps by 2027, a date that is just over 8 years away. Without programs like Connect South Dakota, communities and families that are currently on the wrong side of the digital divide will be facing a digital canyon within a decade.
Today’s world is changing at an ever-increasing pace. That means it is even more important for every South Dakotan to be connected in order to keep stride with competitors from all sections of the globe. And with projections that nearly two-thirds of the jobs that our state’s young people will hold in their lifetimes have not been created yet, making sure they and every other South Dakotan has the digital skills and connections to earn a living in the 21st century will be vitally important to the future of our state.
Unfortunately, there are still a number of “internet deserts” in our state that need to be addressed. The Connect South Dakota program is a valuable tool which will help alleviate a “data drought” for these areas in the coming years.