PIERRE, S.D. — This January, when Jim Edman, representing South Dakota's Bureau of Information and Technology, stood in front of a legislative committee to talk about expanding broadband across the state, he made fleeting reference to the mid-1950s, when the state finally got mostly hooked up to electricity.
"Nobody thinks twice today in regards to [Rural Electrification Act] extending an electrical grid to some of the more remote areas of the state," said Edman. "Time is now we have to apply that same concept toward broadband."
On Tuesday, April 4, Gov. Kristi Noem, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, and Ross Petrick, of Alliance Communications, a rural broadband cooperative in southeastern South Dakota, appeared at an event outside Rowena, South Dakota to tour a new broadband site.
South Dakota's normally fiscally reserved legislature okayed $100 million in one-time spending this year for broadband expansion across the state. But Carr noted that federal entities will bring in 10 times that much, possibly $1 billion, over a decade putting that distant goal of fully online within the state's grasp.
"When you step back and look at all the federal dollars we're now bringing to South Dakota, it's about $1 billion over the next ten years," said Carr. "That should be enough money to finally get the job done."
Just what the job is varies.
In January, Edman told the senate state affairs committee in the run-up to passage of Senate Bill 34 that Mitchell-based Vantage Point estimated $200 million was needed to shore up "broadband gaps" across the state. But filling a gap isn't the same as bringing the proper speeds to folks, as kids filling McDonald's parking lots to complete remote learning homework evidenced last school year.
A recent White House page on South Dakota's infrastructure finds 13% of South Dakotans lack "minimally acceptable speeds." State officials say 135,000 residents lack broadband that "meets their needs."
And that's far from the worst in the nation. White House reports say neighboring Montana and Wyoming, respectively, have 28% and 27% of residents lacking faster internet. But South Dakota's sluggish speeds rank higher than Minnesota or North Dakota and are exacerbated by both remote, disparate population centers and rugged terrain.
On Monday, Noem touted that "South Dakota is growing like crazy," but people who may move to the state to work remotely depend on high-speed internet. She and Carr heard remarks from Petrick detailing internet struggles for a family living north of Garretson who drove into town update an iPhone to a woman "peddling faster than her internet connection could allow" on her Peloton exercise bike.
Petrick said taxpayer funding will help his business build-out to "rocky terrain" running along the state's far eastern border with Iowa. While Gov. Noem said she hopes internet expansion will aid people to work "from our smallest towns as well as our larger, populated areas," completing homework, accessing healthcare or marketing grain.
Broadband expansion is one of the few bipartisan political issues on both a state and national level.
In South Dakota's Republican supermajority legislature, Noem's $100 million spend on broadband expansion enjoyed bipartisan support. In Washington D.C., while dueling infrastructure plans from the Biden administration and Senate Republicans differ on spending and scope, some targeted investment areas — including broadband — are included in both projects.
Biden has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead a broadband initiative at the federal level.
"It's going to help our kids and business succeed in the 21st century economy," the president said during his address to Congress last week.
With combined efforts, say state officials, rural communities may be able to lure back some South Dakotans who may've left for greener — or more connected — pastures.