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High-speed internet access expands by 222K in 10 years, makes ‘a world of difference’

When Kay Miller's high school children had a large school project, they were forced to make a 12-mile trek from Fulton to Mitchell to use a restaurant or hotel's wireless internet. But that problem has been wiped away thanks to the introduction o...

Rural Broadband (Troy Becker/Forum News Service)
Rural Broadband (Troy Becker/Forum News Service)

When Kay Miller's high school children had a large school project, they were forced to make a 12-mile trek from Fulton to Mitchell to use a restaurant or hotel's wireless internet. But that problem has been wiped away thanks to the introduction of broadband service to the rural Hanson County town.

Last fall, Fulton's internet speeds multiplied, giving the small town fiber optic access for the first time and bringing Fulton from beyond the fringe of broadband's reach and into a whole new world of internet access. And before TrioTel Communications expanded access to Fulton, Miller said simple concerns like homework were more challenging.

For instance, some downloads would take far too long with the service provided in Fulton.

"Well, we knew we wouldn't hold service for 11 hours, so they would drive the 12 miles from Fulton to Mitchell to sit at a restaurant or hotel lot, somewhere they could pick up internet and do it in 15 or 20 minutes," said Miller, also Fulton's mayor.

Before late last year, Fulton wasn't alone with its lack of a high-speed internet connection, but the town is part of a rapidly growing trend in South Dakota. According to the Public Utilities Commission's annual reports, information on high-speed internet connections wasn't included until 2007, but the amount of South Dakotans with broadband access rose by approximately 222,719 potential customers from 2005 to 2015. The amount of high-speed internet subscribers also rose in over the same time period by 123,508 customers, such as households or businesses.

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But some state and local office holders, like Miller, have continued to fight for expanded broadband access throughout the state.

The expansion of high-speed internet service has been a hot topic this week in both Pierre and Washington, D.C., with the Senate Commerce Committee discussing the issue and state Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson fulfilling a campaign promise to champion the issue in Pierre.

"You know, we've got places that have world class broadband where the telecom company is running fiber right to the farm and the home, and we've got other places, some in the Mitchell area, that literally have no broadband access or very poor quality broadband access," Nelson told The Daily Republic late last year. "In 21st century South Dakota, we can't have that kind of division."

So Nelson pressed onward, lobbying in favor of Senate Bill 71 this week, which added the expansion of high-speed internet access to underserved areas of the state to a list of items eligible for tax refunds.

The legislation, which was enrolled Thursday, falls in line with Nelson's priority during his 2016 re-election campaign to continue building out broadband access to rural communities, which he said has a real impact on the state's economy.

"Really, when it comes down to things that impact the economy of South Dakota, getting broadband to rural areas is one of the biggest things that we can do to make sure that folks that live there can remain economically competitive in this rural environment," Nelson said.

As Nelson has continued to push for more broadband access in rural communities, small towns like Fulton are reaping the rewards of high-speed internet access.

No longer do Miller's children have to take the trip to the Godfather's Pizza parking lot in Mitchell to upload or download a file necessary for a school project or homework assignment. And while she said the students didn't always mind the trip to Mitchell, Miller said the slow internet speeds were harder on the parents.

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"The kids never really felt like it was a hassle, because they always like a trip to Mitchell, but as a parent, it felt like an unnecessary trip," Miller said of her children, including one who made the trip to Mitchell on Easter morning last year.

Expansion isn't easy

To bring high-speed internet to Fulton, Miller went door-to-door explaining the benefits of bringing high-speed internet to her town to help students and telecommuters in the community.

"There were a couple people in town who it didn't really effect (TrioTel) bringing it in, but when they heard about the kids and homework projects, they're like, 'Hey, I'm on board.' "

And after getting locals to buy in to the project, TrioTel brought nearly 40 residents and businesses into the 21st century with an advanced fiber optic network.

Convincing residents to pay for the service was only the beginning, however, with the member-owned cooperative then tasked with building the fiber optic infrastructure necessary to expand to the rural community.

According Bryan Roth, TrioTel's general manager and CEO, it costs approximately $10,000 per mile to bring fiber optic service out to a rural community like Fulton. And with rural homes spread far apart, that expansion isn't cheap.

"If you've got one customer that you're serving every mile, if you start driving some of these rural roads going out there, it starts adding up quite fast and how do you recover those costs to put those in?" Roth told The Daily Republic in December. "So that's where we've struggled for years."

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But thanks to a "great mayor" in Miller, Roth said the cooperative was able to expand to Fulton. Along with the help from Miller, Roth said expansion to a rural community also requires the need for increased bandwidth, a high quality service to offer and a commitment from customers that they will continue to purchase the product.

"Before we put any plows in the ground, we needed a commitment from the people," Roth said.

While Fulton acquired broadband access in 2016 with the help of TrioTel, other towns and companies have also helped boost the state's high-speed services in rural areas.

In 2015, CenturyLink was given clearance to receive federal funds to bring broadband to more than 15,000 customers in rural South Dakota through the Connect America Fund. And according to the Federal Communications Commission, the second phase of the Connect America Fund brought federal support to several areas of South Dakota to expand broadband access, including rural locations near the Black Hills and the Mitchell and Chamberlain areas. The first phase of the Connect America Fund brought support to 180 locations in the state.

With the South Dakota Legislature approving SB 71 and federal dollars flowing in to support rural broadband buildout, Miller said the ability to have access to high-speed internet in a remote area is "priceless."

"That's the day we're in, they need connectivity," Miller said about students' need for broadband access.

Access advances Avon

Fulton isn't the only rural town where rural broadband access is making a difference for residents.

Two counties to the south, Avon has taken full advantage of the high-speed internet access, a point Nelson noted on both the campaign trail and this week in Pierre.

"So they can live where they want to live and still work for the companies that may be located elsewhere," Nelson said about the telecommunications opportunities in Avon. "So that's giving folks in the Avon area a very real illustration of how having that robust broadband makes a difference."

Avon School District Superintendent Tom Culver has also seen that difference since he said high-speed internet came to town approximately five years ago.

In one sweeping motion caused by the new broadband infrastructure, Culver noted the domino effect high-speed internet access had on his district's students and teachers, who also participate in the Southeast Interactive Long Distance Learning Consortium (SILDL).

Avon became part of the distance learning cooperative in the 1990s when it was made up of a handful of schools, but early internet speeds dampened the district's ability to provide as many teachers and students from teaching or taking classes as part of the consortium.

"The problem we had there for a while is sometimes connections," Culver told The Daily Republic this week. "Things were kind of slow even though we had our own dedicated equipment."

When rural broadband access improved, the consortium was able to double through a heightened ability to provide web-based courses for its students. And because Avon acquired high-speed internet access, Culver said the district was one of the first to receive updated Digital Dakota Network video conferencing equipment from the state.

An added benefit attributable to those broadband infrastructure improvements is that Avon teachers no longer face the frustration of getting booted off the internet server or facing slow speeds when trying to input grades for students.

The improvements have also allowed teachers to expand their lesson plans without worrying about whether or not their internet connection will remain reliable.

"If you have a lesson plan you want to do and you want to do something technology or internet-wise, you may have the greatest lesson plan, but if it doesn't work, it kind of leaves the teachers out there hanging," Culver said. "Very seldom is that ever an issue, it's made a world of difference."

Related Topics: AVONINTERNET
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