Transcript from documentary produced by South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Elizabeth Hanson is a University of South Dakota faculty member in the department of communication sciences and disorders. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s teaching remotely full time. So are all other professors and instructors in the South Dakota Board of Regents system.
“The whole COVID crisis kind of heated up while we were on spring break,” said Hanson. “So spring break was extended for a week and that gave everybody time to transition our coursework to remote learning. So we’ve been doing that since March 23rd and I think that it’s going to continue well into the summer.”
Hanson lives in rural Clay County. She’s had internet service since moving to the area about 15 years ago but the services were slow at first, then increasingly expensive. She has the need for speed right now. Remote teaching technologies can eat up a lot of bandwidth.
“We had internet off our phones, off our cell phone hotspots, and that just was not robust enough to handle the additional traffic doing teaching via Zoom. We need to be able to see each other to have these meetings to stay socially connected. We need to be able to reach out to students and have all of that video capability,” Hanson said.
Elizabeth Hanson and her husband followed up on a Vast Broadband advertisement offering an unlimited data plan. Vast technician Justin Gukheisen showed up a few days later wearing personal protective equipment. He wouldn’t be here at all if anyone in the house was sick.
Mark Bookout, Regional Director of Operations for Vast Broadband, says the company handles new installations or upgrades using a safety script based on guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control.
“The first step that we’re taking is to attempt to keep our people safe and to keep our customers safe is by asking questions when they call us. So some of those questions that we ask, ‘Are you or is anyone in your home sick? Are you or anyone in your home under quarantine?’ And if the answer to those questions are yes, we generally try to reschedule that order for a time after which they’re no longer sick,” Bookout said.
Elizabeth Hanson was concerned about a home visit, at first. “I was a little bit leery about whether or not somebody would be all gloved up and face mask and everything coming into the house for whatever needed to be installed,” Hanson said. “But apparently they have taken that into consideration.”
Vast Broadband’s Mark Bookout says technicians will avoid entering a home, if possible.
“In addition to safety scripting, technicians looking for opportunities not to enter a customer’s home. Obviously social distancing measures, six feet away. We’ve issue the masks to cover mouth and nose. We offer our techs, latex gloves, hand sanitizer, that sort of thing,” Bookout said. “Should someone call us and say, ‘Yes I’m sick. Somebody in my homes sick but my internet doesn’t work, and I’ve got to be connected to the world.’ In those instances, we’ll send a technician out, we’ll do all of the possible check outside of the home and then if everything looks good outside of the home, our technicians will generally sit in their truck in that customer’s driveway. They’ll call that customer and ask them to be their hands and their fingers inside the home and try to troubleshoot that way.”
No one knows what work life will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. If working online from home becomes the new normal, demand for high speed internet in rural residences will stay flat or, more likely, increase. But the need for very high speed internet service to South Dakota farms, ranches and other rural businesses is already there.
Getting high-speed Internet to rural homes and businesses has been a priority for South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem since she took office in early 2019.
“We want to create an environment where people aren’t forced to choose between the modern economy on one hand and life in their hometowns on the other,” Noem said in her 2020 State of the State Address to the South Dakota Legislature. “Now along those lines, I stood here before you last year. I told you we needed to set goals as a state to bring our homes and our businesses up to a satisfactory level of broadband access. I outlined a plan to do so, so that more South Dakotans than ever before could be connected to high speed internet,” said Noem.
In 2019 the South Dakota legislature approved $5 million in funding to help address that demand. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development began awarding grants to eight private or member owned cooperative telecommunications companies that agreed to match state funding and meet several other requirements. From a business standpoint, connecting rural areas wouldn’t happen without state and federal support.
Mark Bookout doubts if connecting rural areas could happen without state and federal support.
“The cost is the same in a rural area as it is in a more densely populated suburban area or city area, if you will,” said Bookout. “So my whole plant may cost us $50,000 to build, if you serve one customer with that, your return on investment is virtually nonexistent, but if you build in that mile fiber in a city where you have 50 homes per mile, then you reach financial metrics that make a little more sense.”
Jim Edman, Chief Information Security Officer with South Dakota’s Bureau of Information and Telecommunications sees a similarity between the push for rural broadband and efforts made during the rural electrification work between the 1930s and 1960s.
“I think you would say the same thing back in the 20s and 30s with the Rural Electric Association and getting electricity to all corners of the state and every homestead, farm, business, etc. Yeah, the goal is to saturate the state with high speed broadband. Now when can we get there? That’s the question.”
The 2019 connect South Dakota projects are complete. The 2020 legislature approved additional state funding for another project but given the economic hit to the state from the pandemic, the budget for rural broadband funding, like the rest of the state’s budget, is under review.
“We’re going ahead as though the project is going to occur,” Jim Edman said. “But we know in the back of our minds, somebody may come up and say, ‘Hey, sorry, we need to $5 million elsewhere.’ But I think interestingly enough in today’s world, I mean, look at the emphasis and the value that broadband has put at the consumer level. I mean, it’s more important today than ever.”