Noem touts $100 million broadband subsidy program

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, right, on Tuesday, during a tour of a site where broadband internet fiber was recently installed near Brandon. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

BRANDON (AP) – Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday lauded her efforts to spend millions of dollars in government funds on providing broadband internet access to revitalize South Dakota's rural communities.

The Republican governor toured a site near the city of Brandon where a $700,000 state program subsidy helped to complete a $1.7 million project to get high-speed internet to 170 homes. Although the area is close to the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls, a resident said the previously spotty internet coverage had been a headache.

“We can live life normally,” said Jessica Schaap, whose family had previously trekked to parking lots with high-speed internet access to work on homework.

Schaap said the most immediate impact was that she and her husband could now both stream Netflix in separate rooms. But for Noem, who hopes a $100 million subsidy program will spur projects like that statewide, the subsidies represent the potential to revitalize rural communities by connecting people to work and health care over the internet.

“For years, they’ve needed this kind of service and they just didn’t have the ability to access it for their families, and it’s really changed their way of life,” the governor said. “It’s changed their ability to live where they want to live and work from there.”

About 95% of the state's population has access to high-speed internet, according to a report this year from the Federal Communications Commission. That's slightly below the national rate and ranks South Dakota 32nd among U.S. states. In the state's rural areas, the percentage goes down to 89%. During Noem's first months in office, she made it a goal to get high-speed internet access statewide by the end of her term next year.

It's not clear that will happen by 2022, but the pandemic gave her a big boost. Noem said there's an increased demand for education, doctor's consultations and jobs to be conducted over the internet.

The $1.25 billion of federal relief money the state government received for coronavirus relief also helped. Noem had struggled to get a $10 million allotment for the broadband subsidy program in 2020, but this year, with the state budget flush with federal funds, her proposal to allot $100 million for the program sailed through the Legislature. It was the largest project lawmakers approved this year.

Noem hopes high-speed internet will attract new residents who can work remotely in rural areas. For a state that has at times struggled to keep small towns viable, it could be a turn in fortune.

“We saw this brain drain out of rural communities, and now you have an option,” said Brendan Carr, an FCC commissioner who joined Noem at the event. “That’s the power of an internet connection.”

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