Senate panel backs Noem’s ‘2.0’ broadband plan

Capitol News Bureau

State technology official Jim Edman. Photo by Bob Mercer / KELOLAND News.

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — No one at a hearing Tuesday spoke against the governor’s request for $100 million as state government’s share to finish a $200 million upgrade of broadband service in rural South Dakota.

The Senate Commerce and Energy Committee endorsed the legislation 8-0 and sent it to the Joint Committee on Appropriations. Those 18 lawmakers will decide whether Governor Kristi Noem gets the money. Local providers and federal grants would account for the other $100 million.

Testifying for the bill from her administration were Steve Westra, the governor’s commissioner of economic development, and Jim Edman, from the state Bureau of Information and Telecommunications.

“We are not looking for a Band-Aid fix,” Edman said.

The question among legislators, according to Senator Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican, is reliability of the $200 million estimate.

Replied Edman, ““We are very confident that with a hundred million dollars we will solve this across the entire state.” He added, “How many sons and daughters have we sent out of state because they can’t practice their profession in South Dakota?”

Among witnesses speaking in support was Greg Dean, industry relations director for the South Dakota Telecommunications Association. “I would characterize it as a visionary proposal. It is bold,” Dean said. “We don’t see that very often.”

Other organizations who sent people to speak for the plan were South Dakota Farm Bureau, South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, AARP, National Federation of Independent Businesses, South Dakota Association of Cooperatives, and Farm Credit Services of America.

The Legislature appropriated $5 million in March for broadband expansion. That did 14 projects. An estimated 135,000 South Dakotans are still without high-speed internet, according to an FCC report based on 2019 data.

Commissioner Westra said South Dakota could be a national leader in high-speed broadband availability. “That’s part of this big plan that Gov. Noem rolled out,” he said. “Right now the state has the dollars to do a really big project.”

Senator Jim Stalzer, a Sioux Falls Republican, said using federal coronavirus aid last year wasn’t possible because of a December 30, 2020, deadline. Congress later extended it to December 31, 2021.

Timing now is perfect, said Senator Casey Crabtree, the Madison Republican who chairs the panel: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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