In his role as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, Brendan Carr is working to bridge the digital divide, as it’s known, between rural America and high-speed internet.

On Thursday, that work put him more than 100 feet in the air, putting a birds-eye view to the impact the technology will make in South Dakota.

Carr visited Midco’s 330-foot radio tower on the southeastern Mitchell, which overlooks Interstate 90. He climbed about one-third of the tower along with workers from Midco and Vikor Teleconstruction to install radio equipment that will send out high-speed internet to rural areas, where an antenna on a home or a farm building can receive the signal and provide broadband on the farm. From the installation site, the wireless signal has a seven-mile reach.

The site in Mitchell is the first for Midco that is making use of the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which has been a primary source for billions of dollars to be doled out for rural broadband projects. Earlier this year, Midco was awarded $38.9 million to deploy next-generation fixed broadband to more than 7,000 unserved areas in the Dakotas and Minnesota. About $5 million of that would go to about 900 locations in South Dakota, said Midco chief technology officer Jon Pederson, and almost $600,000 will serve 266 locations around Mitchell, starting with Thursday’s project.

Carr, who has made rural broadband efforts one of his specialties since joining the FCC commission in 2017, said his goal is simple.

“We’re making sure that every single American, no matter where you live, has a chance at the economic opportunity that comes with internet access, whether that includes telehealth, educational opportunities, or jobs,” he said.

Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr, center, examines the installation of high-speed internet equipment Thursday on Midco's 330-foot telecommunications tower in Mitchell. Also pictured in the rear is Matt Hollingshead, of Midco. (Photo courtesy of Midco)
Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr, center, examines the installation of high-speed internet equipment Thursday on Midco's 330-foot telecommunications tower in Mitchell. Also pictured in the rear is Matt Hollingshead, of Midco. (Photo courtesy of Midco)

In August, the FCC announced it was authorizing $4.9 billion in support for rural broadband over the next 10 years, including its largest share in South Dakota, totaling $705.5 million and more than 55,000 homes and businesses among community service providers in very rural areas. Generally, the cost to deploy and maintain broadband to homes and businesses in sparsely populated rural areas is high, which is where the FCC’s subsidies come into play.

In this case, funding from the Universal Service Fund, which is driven by fees assessed to phone consumers. In return for the support, carriers generally have to maintain, improve and expand broadband services, including at least 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits per second upstream speeds. The Midco installation Thursday was set to provide 100 megabits per second downstream, and 20 megabits per second upstream, Pederson said.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., commended Carr for visiting South Dakota, and for physically climbing the Midco tower to see what the technology could do for the area. He joked that previous FCC commissioners probably “would not be caught dead” on a telecommunications tower.

“You don’t have these kinds of good stories if you don’t have rural providers that are willing to make these kinds of investments,” Johnson said to about 25 industry and political leaders at the site Thursday morning. “You don’t get these kinds of stories if you don’t have a forward-looking FCC is that is willing to change in a dramatic way how they do business, how they deploy these resources.”

Work on building out 5G infrastructure and expanding connectivity has become one of Carr’s specialties, and he called it “one of the top priorities at the FCC.” Carr said he also wants to see the workforce expand for telecommunications jobs, as well.

“The industry right now could hire 20,000 tower climbers, and these are good paying jobs, and the view is pretty good on most days, too. We’re trying to create a pipeline for these 5G jobs. That would be a great boom in terms of jobs.”

Johnson said South Dakota is doing better than most states with rural broadband, but “the job is not done by a long shot.” He also mentioned that his experience working at Vantage Point Solutions for the last four years prior to getting elected to Congress is valuable in Washington.

“I saw how real broadband, real internet could transform families, communities, businesses. I just saw them go from a sense of despair to a sense of opportunity because they got connected with much better speeds.”

Carr had been in South Dakota since Tuesday, capping his three-day trip in Sioux Falls. He made stops in Rapid City, Lead, Pine Ridge, Kyle and Midland before visiting Mitchell on Thursday.

“It’s a vast and remote part of the country,” Carr said. “When you get out and you see the broad economic impact that it has for communities, it really underscores why it’s such a big priority,” he said.

The rest of Carr’s Thursday included meeting with Sioux Falls officials regarding small cell facilities for 5G in Sioux Falls, a visit to Raven Manufacturing for precision ag equipment and high-altitude balloon technology and to Southeast Technical Institute to discuss jobs related to the 5G rollout.

Carr, a lawyer by trade, was the FCC’s general counsel in January 2017, until President Donald Trump nominated Carr to the Federal Communications Commission, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in August 2017.

Field hearing focuses on growth plans

Also on Carr’s schedule Thursday was a Senate Commerce committee hearing on broadband services in rural America, which was hosted by U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and was held at Southeast Tech in Sioux Falls. U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who is also a member of the committee, took part in the hearing, as well.

Thune also spoke to the importance of broadband for rural South Dakota. He said it is critical that the FCC continues to update its current broadband availability maps, and accurate maps, Thune said, are needed to effectively target “truly unserved areas.” Thune also hosted Carr for a 5G-focused Senate Commerce committee field hearing in October 2018, as well.

“It's encouraging that the FCC’s recent broadband deployment report shows the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection has continued to decline, but this issue will remain a priority for me until we’ve closed that gap entirely for everyone who wants access to broadband and the benefits it brings,” Thune said.

From left, Midco chief technology officer Jon Pederson, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr speak with an installation of wireless internet equipment at Midco's 330-foot telecommunications tower Thursday in Mitchell. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)
From left, Midco chief technology officer Jon Pederson, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr speak with an installation of wireless internet equipment at Midco's 330-foot telecommunications tower Thursday in Mitchell. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

Mark Shlanta, the CEO of SDN Communications in Sioux Falls, said rural broadband providers in South Dakota touched about 65 percent of the occupied homes and living locations with fiber-optic cables in 2017. He said the industry expects to be at 80 percent by the end of this year, and more than 90 percent by the end of 2021 having access to fiber-optic cables.

Officials from Dakota State University and South Dakota State University testified about the impact of high-speed internet in the classroom and economically. Deanna Larson, the CEO of Avera’s eCare program, said broadband expansion is a matter of saving lives, noting that Avera just marked its 25-year anniversary of telemedicine work and pointing out its impact in emergency care, pharmacy, intensive care, specialists and in medical training.

“Without broadband, we wouldn’t have these services that now exist,” Larson said. “Without expanded broadband, we would leave some areas of our country without the advantage of these potentially lifesaving, money‐saving and career‐saving services.”

Carr said the FCC is working on a $100 million Connected Care pilot program that will go toward promoting telemedicine services, focused on projects that connect patients with health care services directly and outside of a hospital. He called it the health care equivalent of going “from Blockbuster to Netflix.”

“We have proposed to support a limited number of telehealth projects over a multi-year period with controls in place to measure and verify the benefits, costs, and savings associated with connected care,” Carr testified. “It could take the results we’ve already seen in the limited trials to date and help replicate those results in communities across the country. This will allow remote patient monitoring and mobile health applications that can be accessed on smartphones and tablets, to lower the burdens on patients, and the health care system as a whole.”