By: Jeremy Fugleberg, The Argus Leader
When Scott Sandal is talking to potential clients, he seems to always get the same question about the speed and bandwidth of the internet he relies on for his business.
“They’re like, ‘in South Dakota?'” he said.
Sandal is Sunbird Software’s director of service and support. From Sioux Falls, Sandal runs a team monitoring the power needs of data centers all over the globe.
It’s a job that requires a lot of bandwidth. But in Sioux Falls, Sandal’s got it. Same in Lennox, where he lives, connected online via a fiber optic line.
The quality internet connection helps Sandal recruit South Dakotans who might otherwise look for information technology jobs elsewhere but find themselves seriously considering a big-bandwidth job here.
“Just the idea of being able to work from home to support this global customer base,” Sandal told the Argus Leader.
The future of broadband in South Dakota is increasingly the future of business here, and the challenges are many, especially in a largely rural state.
While South Dakota is relatively well equipped with broadband internet access and an expanding network of fiber optic lines, the next step is close on the horizon.
Wireless providers are working now to build out dense-network, small-footprint cell technology that will prove crucial for what’s next: fifth-generation mobile data, or 5G. South Dakota’s senior U.S. senator, John Thune, is spearheading federal legislation to speed up 5G deployment before 2020.
“I think 5G really does represent the not-too-distant future, it’s not just an incremental step in mobile speed,” Thune said.
Business’ hunger for bandwidth is growing. Remote IT assistance, data backup and cloud storage are no longer new, and their growing importance for firms large and small has expanded business demand for bandwidth.
High-speed mobile data is the future for many business sectors, including agriculture, telemedicine, virtual reality, internet-connected appliances and driver-free vehicles.
Mobile data is increasingly how we live. Increasingly, it’s how business gets done.
“The devices have changed, the bandwidth has changed, and how we use it in our lives have changed,” said Mark Shlanta, CEO of Sioux Falls-based SDN Communications.
South Dakota isn’t entirely connected by fiber optic cable that allows for speedier broadband, but it is surprisingly good at a problem in many parts of the United States: the rural-urban digital divide. This could prove a crucial key to unlocking the future of 5G wireless data access.
Cities, with their concentration of customers, are natural targets for communications companies in terms of the biggest and best broadband access, and any maps of broadband access will show South Dakota’s cities are well served by one or more broadband providers with strong speeds.
Room to brag
So how about the rural areas? Broadband is, for the most part, carried by wires. And just as with electrification and paved roads, rural, less-populated parts of the country are sometimes last in line to connect to the rest of the world.
But not in South Dakota. There might even be room to brag a little bit.
“In other states, and you might hear a little bit of that in the national discourse, there’s a ‘rural digital divide,'” said Shlanta, whose SDN Communications was founded by independent telephone companies in the state that interconnected their networks in 1989. “I would argue (in South Dakota) it might be the inverse. That parts of our more urban communities may be lagging than some of the rural deployments.”
About 80 percent of South Dakota’s geography is served by independent telecommunications providers, many of whom have strong fiber networks in place even in rural areas and smaller cities. In a quick survey, SDN’s Vernon Brown heard from 10 member companies. Six are 100 percent fiber networks and another four were at 50 percent or better.
The advantages for business in the state are clear. Like Sandal in Lennox, being able to do business from outside the state’s largest cities pays dividends.
“It’s advantageous for business to establish businesses anywhere in the state,” said Denny Law, CEO and general manager of Golden West Telecommunications in Wall, which serves customers across western South Dakota and parts of the eastern side of the state.
“Certainly the populated areas are good,” he said. “But the possibility of a four- to six-person shop in Phillip or Springfield or Dell Rapids is a potential game changer for them, I think.”
If South Dakota is to fully harness the future roll-out of 5G wireless data, with its dense network and blazing speed, it will require a strong backbone in both urban and rural areas.
“For 5G to be successful it will require a pretty phenomenal network to transport all of that data,” Law said. “And I think that’s the role a company like Golden West plays in that, to help facilitate 5G.”
And, a little legislative help.
Thune took his 5G sales pitch to Dakota State University last month, and he didn’t pull any punches.
“We’re very interested in getting to 5G first,” he said. “We’re competing with the Europeans, with the Asians, everybody wants to get to fifth-generation technology when it comes to mobile first, and we have to win that race.”
Mobile NOW Act
South Dakota’s senior U.S. senator is the chair of the powerful Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, with oversight of the national telecommunications laws and regulations. In March, Thune introduced the Mobile NOW Act, a bill to open up spectrum to telecommunications companies and smooth the path for 5G technology, and moved it through his committee to the Senate floor. The generally accepted target date for 5G is 2020. Thune wants to beat it.
In an April 24 interview, Thune said he had talked to the Trump administration only informally about his bill. But he said the bill should get bipartisan support and gain Trump’s support as legislation that could add jobs and boost economy productivity.
“If they’re looking for victories, legislative accomplishments they can point to that are transformative for our economy and have bipartisan support, this is something that can accomplish that,” he said.
While the legislation awaits congressional approval and a Trump signature, others are fighting smaller, more local battles.
“I use the word ‘densification,'” said SDN’s Shlanta. “Wireless carriers, 20-25 years ago, were trying to establish coverage so people could complete phone calls. Today their bigger needs aren’t coverage, they’re capacity, and the way to accomplish that is greater densification of the networks.”
Verizon Wireless is working to build out what are known as small cells, mounting essentially mini cell units atop kiosks and light and power poles. The denser network adds capacity to Verizon’s 4G LTE service, and is a key stepping stone for 5G, which will require a fiber-connected, small-cell backbone.
Thune’s legislation, in part, is meant to address permitting concerns for small cells, which often face the same permitting hurdles as their much, much larger cell tower predecessors.
“Every South Dakota city is different and many local codes treat small cells the same as a larger traditional cell site,” said Meagan Dorsch, a Verizon spokeswoman. “This result can be lengthy and costly permitting that discourages new investment.”
“Providing a streamlined process that treats small cells as a permitted use and allowing the attachment of small cells to existing structures in the public right of will allow companies to build the next generation of 4G LTE for its customers,” she said.
While 5G may be the future, and South Dakota’s networks are better positioned than some states to handle it, Law struck a cautionary note. Look for the rollout to follow the more traditional path from urban to rural, he said.
“It’s going to be an interesting urban application, but it’s going to take a while before neighborhoods have it, and before small communities have it and certainly before rural areas have it,” he said. “But I also think it will be cool when it gets here.”
In terms of 5G and South Dakota business, “cool” means game-changing.