High-speed internet connection is coming for residents on the outskirts of Davison County.

Thanks to $5 million in grants awarded by Gov. Kristi Noem, as well as additional funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, 14 new projects are set to begin for South Dakota areas that are unserved or underserved with internet connectivity.

Santel Communications submitted two proposals that were approved for a total $2,040,067 to provide broadband to rural Davison County. Construction is set to begin by speaking with impacted households to set up installation in the next 45-60 days, with completion required by June 2021 per the grant.

“We’ve served customers in this area for many years and we could see -- like anybody else -- enhanced broadband networks is definitely the long game for rural areas,” Santel CEO Ryan Thompson said. “... We did two proposals, both were ultimately approved, but the rationale was that if there was a limited amount of dollars, we’re all scratching for the same thing. We submitted the second contingent on the first being approved.”

Santel serves as a cooperative around the Mitchell area on three sides, with rural Letcher on the north, rural Mount Vernon on the west and rural Ethan on the south. The area -- Phase 1 was originally north of Interstate 90 and Phase 2 was south of I-90 before merging the projects -- is traditionally served by CenturyLink, but that company has not made an investment to upgrade broadband in those areas.

A map of the Davison County area that will receive fiber optic broadband upgrades from Santel Communications through a state grant. (Courtesy photo)
A map of the Davison County area that will receive fiber optic broadband upgrades from Santel Communications through a state grant. (Courtesy photo)

The project will serve around 400 locations, with an estimated cost of $4 million to place fiber optic cabling underground. The state grant will reimburse up to 50 percent of costs, which otherwise would not have been feasible due to a lack of population density.

“You have so few customers, so few opportunities that these investments just don’t happen,” Thompson said. “In the city of Mitchell, the population is approximately 1,300 people per square mile. The areas we’re talking about are three people per square mile. Economically, it just does not work (without state aid).”

Thompson admits there are a few residents that won’t be interested in adding or upgrading internet or phone services, but he noted the increased technological advances in farming create a higher demand for speedy broadband.

Fiber-optic communication is transmitted through pulses of infrared light through an optical fiber. The light then forms an electromagnetic wave to carry information. Thompson says it is generally more reliable -- particularly in rural areas -- than wireless communication because fiber doesn’t not run into issues with distance. It also lowers costs for Santel by not having to send workers out to fix problems when they occur.

“We do wireless systems as well and it’s OK, but with fiber optics and its ability to convert data to high-speed light pulses, it is very fast,” Thompson said. “When it’s underground in our environment, it’s protected, it’s isolated, it’s not hanging on a pole that falls down during an ice storm. It’s more reliable. When we make big investments like this, we look at the long game, not a quick fix.”

Big Dig projected to finish one year ahead of schedule

While Santel is preparing to begin a new project, it is also in the process of finishing a similar rural broadband project.

In 2018, Santel started a five-year, $24 million investment to upgrade services in the cooperative for communities in the Mitchell area, dubbed the Big Dig.

A push from the board of directors and quality contractors have put Santel ahead of schedule. Alpena, Artesian, Wolsey and Ethan are scheduled to be finished this year, before rounding out with upgrades Dimock and Parkston in 2021. All of the projects are now expected to be completely finished by 2022, one year ahead of schedule.

“We have to go into homes to do a conversion from their old network,” said Randy Northrup, Santel sales and marketing manager. “It’s usually an older copper connection, which doesn’t allow higher speeds. With this fiber optic, you can get up to 1 GB, so it’s a powerful system for you to do whatever you need to do on the internet.”