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Santel rolls out fiber internet upgrade plan

Santel General Manager Ryan Thompson explains Santel's internet service map Thursday at the Buckshots Roadhouse restaurant in Letcher. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)1 / 2
Santel General Manager Ryan Thompson and South Dakota Public Utlities Commission Chairperson Kristie Fiegen examine a Santel internet service map Thursday at the Buckshots Roadhouse restaurant in Letcher. (Marcus Traxler / Republic) 2 / 2

LETCHER — Santel Communications kicked off its big investment in fiber-optic internet in one of its smallest towns.

The rural telephone and internet provider cooperative on Thursday marked the start of a five-year, $24 million investment effort into a number of communities in the Mitchell area with a special event in Letcher, as the need for faster connections climbs by the day.

The project calls for replacing copper lines with fiber optic to homes — affectionately known as "fiber to the farm" — and increasing the ability to bring faster internet to rural farms and small towns. The upgrades will reach about 2,000 households in Santel's service area and be phased in over that five-year timeline. Construction will begin in August near Letcher. The first round of work will likely be complete in early 2019.

Santel General Manager and CEO Ryan Thompson said it's been about 20 years since the last installation of cables in Letcher and most people would have asked the same question: Who could possibly need that much internet?

"But we ate through all of that and more," he said, noting high-speed internet has gone from a want to a need for many customers.

Many of the 575 miles of fiber-optic cable to be installed will be inside the city limits of Santel's communities, while rural work will also be done in the Alpena, Tripp and Wolsey areas. The upgrades will make gigabit internet for farms and small towns a possibility and Thompson noted the demand for faster internet has skyrocketed in the last five years, up 770 percent.

"Our existing networks are getting hammered by what you're doing in your businesses and your personal use," Thompson said. "Networks, quite frankly, are breaking."

The bottleneck being replaced, as Thompson describes it, is the connectivity from Santel's main fiber lines to each individual home. (That's where the rural nickname "fiber to the farm" comes from.)

The lines to be replaced are copper, which has been the dominant way of wiring homes since the advent of the telephone. Fiber optic transmission cables are stronger, faster and do a better job of avoiding signal loss.

The fiber connections are important, Thompson said, because there's fewer than 2 people per square mile in the Woonsocket-based cooperative's service area, meaning wireless transmission isn't feasible.

The cost of the upgrades is taken on by Santel, which is making use of funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service loan program and the Federal Communications Commission's Universal Service Fund, which is funded through a small surcharge on telephone bills across the country. About 60 percent of Santel's territory already has the technology but this investment will complete the project.

"The idea is that as telephone users put money in that fund, it can go to places where it's expensive to build out that infrastructure, like Sanborn County, to get these people connected like folks elsewhere in the country," South Dakota PUC Commissioner Chris Nelson said.

Nelson's colleague Kristie Fiegen noted that 75 percent of the state's residents are served by rural cooperatives but saluted many of the state's co-ops for being aggressive to bring fiber to South Dakota residents.

"We have co-ops that make decisions based on the needs in South Dakota," Fiegen told a crowd of about 30 officials and local dignitaries. "You all live here and work here and know what this means to your communities."

Nelson said the ability for rural South Dakota is a necessary part of living in the 21st century and allows residents to compete internationally.

"As I was driving into Letcher this morning, you think about how it's not on a state highway, it's not on a (major) railroad track, it's almost out of the way," he said. "But once you get high-speed broadband, they're in the middle of international trade just like anyone else in the world."

It's a big step forward for the quality of life in Letcher, said Tiffany Jensen, president of the Letcher Community Development Foundation. She said the connectivity in Letcher is important for the residents who do a lot of work with communities such as Mitchell or Woonsocket or beyond.

"We have small businesses here, we have a lot of people who work from home," Jensen said. "So it's important for us to keep everything up to do date so that we're not falling behind."

Jensen — who works for Avera Health in medical coding — works from home three days a week. She said many of the community's new homes are wired for the fiber transition but have converters to transmit from the copper lines.

"If we can get faster internet between all of the things that people have going on now, whether that's Netflix or running their business, we're going to be in good shape," Jensen said.

Nelson noted there's still plenty to be done in South Dakota.

While some rural telecom companies like Santel or Salem-based TrioTel have made key infrastructure investments, nearby providers may not have made similar rural investments. CenturyLink, for example, is the rural service provider around both Mitchell and Huron where gaps remain, according to officials.

"You've got really disparate economic opportunity depending on which side of the gravel road you're on," Nelson said. "My mission is to eliminate that barrier in South Dakota."

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