Parts of Moody, Brookings and Kingsbury counties are in line to get high-speed broadband service as part of a $9.5 million federal grant.

Valley FiberCom of Volga has plans to lay 763 miles of fiber in rural areas of Moody, Brookings and Kingsbury counties in 2021. The project’s total expense, which will not cost customers for laying the lines, is nearly $12.8 million. Valley FiberCom, which is part of Valley Telecommunications Cooperative of Herreid, will match the remainder of the cost not covered by the ReConnect grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The project is expected to bring broadband service to 4,463 rural South Dakotans. 

Residents in rural areas of Moody County complain that they can’t get internet service or that coverage is spotty.

“These areas of east central South Dakota have struggled with a lack of good broadband for too long,” said Jeff Symens, CEO and general manager of Valley FiberCom and Valley Telecommunications. The announcement was made last week at the River Thru Ag Office, north of Flandreau, owned by businessman Darren Hamilton.

The goal is to provide the most robust broadband service in the nation, Symens said. “We are very excited to get started on the project and get to know our new customers.”

Valley FiberCom will plan, stake and get the necessary permits, easements and environmental studies in 2020 and will bid the project by the end of next year. The company will build the network in 2021, with the first customers coming online in the last quarter of 2021, he said.

“It is a long process to execute on a project of this size, but the results are great and worth the time and efforts of all,” Symens said.

Rural Moody County has 350 residences, farms and businesses that will be eligible to receive fiber-based broadband services. Others close to the service locations may also be able to use the system, Symens said.

In Brookings County, far fewer rural locations qualified for a total of 60, but the network will affect others as well. The remaining area of the grant coverage is in Kingsbury County.

Symens projects that nine out of 10 potential customers will want fiber.

He compares the high-speed broadband as being as important as when rural areas got other utilities, such as electricity. 

“You don’t want to pass up on getting fiber to your house,” he said.

Valley FiberCom started its business in 2018 and has brought fiber to Volga, where seven of 10 customers signed up. In 2020, the company will build a fiber network in Arlington, Lake Preston and De Smet. Parent company Valley Telecommunications started in 1968 and serves north central South Dakota communities.

Both Rep. Randy Gross and Rep. Marli Wiese, Republicans from District 8, said the high-speed services will be an improvement for farmers, rural business and even children who need reliable internet to do homework.

“It helps the families and school kids,” Gross said. “It allows families to stay more connected.”

Wiese said as farmers use more precision agriculture systems, they need connectivity. 

“It’s going to be huge for them,” she said.

Julie Schipper, who lives south of Flandreau and works in medical billing for Avera McKennan, said she has unreliable internet service and has to buy a Verizon data product in order to do her job.

“It’s so frustrating to be so close to Flandreau, and we can’t get good internet,” she said. She looks forward to Valley FiberCom coming into the county. “I’ll be definitely getting service. Sign me up.”

Cattle farmers Bill Doyle, who lives northeast of Flandreau, and Kyle Wosje, who has an Elkton address in Moody County, said they need reliable internet connections for their livelihood.

“We actually have a business on the farm,” Doyle said. His wife does upholstery work, and he repairs saddles and harnesses. “We use the internet a lot.”

Wosje runs cattle auctions he advertises online and on social media. While he has dial-up service now that is better than a previous provider, he is interested in using Valley FiberCom when it becomes available. 

“Fiber would be most reliable,” he said.

Connecting rural areas to a high-speed system is important to economic development, said Julie Gross, South Dakota state director of USDA rural development, based in Huron.

“You look at farmers and the need to work from home. A lot of stay-at-home moms work from home, and they need that connectivity,” she said.

Without access to broadband, communities are left behind, she said. Valley FiberCom’s service will be important to telemedicine, precision agriculture, education and jobs, she said.

“It will attract new families and businesses to rural communities, helping grow and increase jobs,” Gross said. “Children will be able to receive a homework assignment in school and come home and be able to complete their assignments using digital tools.”

When rural South Dakota thrives, the whole state thrives, she said.

“Internet access is no longer an amenity. It’s critical. It’s an essential component to rural life,” Gross said.

In the Reconnect grant process, the federal government made $600 million available nationwide for awarding when applications closed in July. More than $1.4 billion in requests were made.

“There was a lot of demand and competition,” she said.

By: Brenda Wade Schmidt, Moody County Enterprise

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